Short URLs: The Pros and Cons - Should You Be Using Short URLs on Twitter, Facebook, and the Web?

Monday, September 3, 2012

Some explanation first. Short URLs are long URLs that have been shortened to make them fit more easily in a text message, Facebook update, or Tweet. In and of themselves there is nothing wrong with Short URLs, but you should consider the Pros and Cons before using them.
There are lots of reasons why you may want or need to use a shortened URL. If you do a lot of Tweets on Twitter you will almost need to use Short URLs if you refer to web sites, recently Twitter initiated an auto URL shortening function on their site. The reason is due to Twitter's limitation of 140 characters for a Tweet, basically what you would have available if you were using a cell phone for texting. So, if you want to put in a URL to a web page and include a bit of explanation you can easily go over that 140 characters. This is where shortening a URL is handy, it gives you more room for comment. Also some longer URLs are more than 140 characters in length, especially URLs from sites using Dynamic content to build pages, such as shopping sites and news services. Fortunately Twitter has information and links to URL shortening services to help you do this (more on these services later).
As an example a typical product link on Amazon or other online sales site can contain 100 or more characters, with 150 not being unheard of. A URL of 120 characters in length would leave you with only 20 characters for comment if you are using Twitter and even if you aren't it leaves you with a very hard to remember URL.
The same URL shortened using a Short URL service on the web could contain 20 characters or less.
Many URL shortening services allow you to create custom shortcuts for your links so that you can retain some name recognition. Custom shortcut names can be used, as long as no one else is using then you can choose any shortcut that you want. Typically these shortcuts would then become the name of the link, following the name of the URL shortening service.
Another reason you may want to shorten a URL is to make it more user friendly and memorable. In the examples above it would be much easier to remember the shortened URL instead of the long one.
So, two very good reasons to use a URL shortening service, now lets take a look at some of the downsides. You need to weigh the pros and cons and consider your audience before you use a shortened URL. The biggest downside to URL shortening services is that you are no longer showing the actual URL. For instance in the examples above the long URL is obviously going where you say it is because the actual path is displayed in the URL, but in the second shortened URL it is not clear where the URL is pointing to.
This can lead to concerns with your audience since they can not immediately tell where the link is pointing. It could be pointing to the product as you claim, or it could be pointing to a malicious web site instead. This is why I recommend against clicking on shortened URLs from people or sites you don't know, it is a security risk. If your audience is unsure of who you are you may lose clicks using a shortened URL.
Another drawback is the lack of name recognition. If you directed your buyers to your home web site instead of using a long URL from an online store you could use a much shorter URL naturally and keep your web site name visible at the same time.
But what if you needed to sell an online store title or some other title with the same long URL problem. Then a great solution is to set up an affiliate web site for your sales, with pages on your site drawn from the affiliate program or other affiliate service. So your URL would go to your site, which you would use in your advertising, and the links on the pages on your site would use the long URLs.
So, now for my recommendations:
• If your audience knows you then go ahead and use shortened URLs if needed
• If you want the name recognition then try to set up relatively short URLs on your own site
• You may need to use shortened URLs if you use a service like Twitter
• If your audience does not know you but you still need shortened URLs, again you should try to set it up through your own site
• And finally, if your audience does not know you and you can't use your own web site then you can try using a service which has a preview feature, allowing your viewers to see the page before they go to it
To find services that create short URLs do a search on Google for "short URL", you will find several free services that do a great job.


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