The Cost of Shortening Your Link

| On the one hand, URL shorteners are handy tools that shrink long, clumsy internet addresses into cute linklets that can fit into a Twitter message. On the other hand, writes Joshua Schachter, they needlessly slow internet traffic, pose a security risk, and can deprive site owners of valuable visitor information or even revenue. Shorteners can be helpful for individual users, but at a great cost to the internet ecosystem. So what if they all went offline? That could be even worse; suddenly, the web would be littered with tens of millions of tiny, broken links all pointing to middlemen that no longer exist. Schachter calls it the great link rot apocalypse. (HT: Kottke) [%comments]

Tariq F

I wonder why we really need URL shorteners. Firstly, though I don't understand the technology behind this, can't websites eventually learn to do this themselves? Think of Youtube, for example, which seems to have short URLs - versus eBay, which seems to have long URLs from all kinds of long verbose text instructions built into the link.

Secondly, I don't think URL shortening is useful for web browsing (who cares when you can click, or just copy/paste) or even emails. It's mainly useful for Twitter and, to a lesser extent, social networking sites like Facebook.

And given that Twitter is incredibly moronic, one wonders on the cost/benefits of TinyURLs to support its existence. (Check out this hilarious satirical video on Twitter:


So it seems that we need someone to build URL shorteners at the domain level, that are generated by the websites themselves so as not to mess up URL links.


Funny, I never expect these URL pointers to stick around, I always thought they were a convenience that would evaporate in a couple days. Hence, I do not worry about the services that serve them going away.

If you wonder why they are useful, try taking a very long URL and posting it into some email client and sending it off. Many times this breaks the URL into pieces over two lines, which means you can't click on the thing and get it to work requires two copy and paste operations. No worries for me, but you may as well make things easy for people.

This is why there were services to provide short URLs before Twitter ever existed.


I think Twitter has weathered at least one instance of TinyURL running into trouble for more than a few minutes. That was frustrating, but because I don't use Twitter for anything more than leisure, it wasn't a big deal. Also, I only use the links for something I want to send right now, so I don't care about future functioning.


I created my own, branded URL shortener when I started using Twitter for exactly this reason. I operate the website and the database that runs the service, so I control the availability. As long as I stay in business and want the links to be available, they are available to everyone. It presents the same issue for someone that might want to use my service (although the form to shorten a link is currently private) but solves the problem for me.


Has anyone actually had an issue with putting a shortened link in a blog like this?

If it takes a small bit of time to do the leg-work to find the real link if it is broken, so what?



"Given that Twitter is incredibly moronic"

It's just possible that not everyone you're addressing will take this as given.


I think another solution would be for sites like Twitter to include some equivalent to an html anchor tag (as many message board platforms do) so that one could use any bit of text to link to another site.


I don't use Twitter, so I don't understand the use of TinyURL. I see it used on blogs fairly often. However, almost all blogs will shorten the link if you post a long one (" ... gnsdiub.html", for example) and you can bury them within hypertext to shorten it even more. Same with posting on a blog; with basic html knowledge, you can create a hyperlink to a specific phrase and not worry about how long the link itself is. I'm not sure how well this would work with Facebook as I don't use it very often and don't know how to format very well.

The upside of that is you can hover over the hypertext and see where the link will take you, which you can't with TinyURL.

It's not a convenience to the person creating the link because they now have to go to a third site to get the shortened link and it's not like they are typing out the url in either case.


i found them useful at one time when using a thick client email program that made it hard to embed the link in html. The were also of great use back when groups on yahoo were popular because it was a pain to embed the links and long urls often got broken.

Now though I rarely if ever use them. gmail, facebook, aim, and most other apps allow one to easily connect the long url with descriptive text of your choosing. so having a short url has no value.


First, re: URL shortening. Kinda silly and strange considering the MAIN reason they are gaining popularity is because of the millions of Twitter users. Shut Twitter down and the overall need goes WAY down. Which brings me to my seond comment/point, @TariqF (!) while I'm not even close to obsessed with the site and its uses, you (and the video) characterize a single aspect of what that site is used for. I, for instance, find it very handy to know when this very site (freakonomics) is updated, along with many others, and Twitter provides a single place for me to know when many of my favorite sites have been updated. So, you may want to think of a better reason to dislike it than "since everyone is doing it, I'll be cool and NOT like it"

Travis L.

These are incredibly valuable for individuals sharing links with other people. They don't suffer from linewrap that's endemic on almost ALL email clients (I've seen it in Yahoo, gmail, outlook, mac mail, and eudora). When a message is forwarded 3 or 4 times, the links in them are frequently broken.

Yes, it would be nice if sites would all do youtube-like short links. But not all do, not all will, not all can.

Further, ever wonder how many people click on links when you put them in your IM away message/ Twitter feed/ Facebook feed? If you don't run the site that gets linked to, you'll never know. With and some of the others, they'll give you some analytics.

So, yes, they can be bad for the internet ecosystem. However, they definitely fill a need among social media.

Rogue Medic

I don't use Twitter. While Donald points out one good reason for using twitter, I get my blog feed elsewhere. Maybe some day I will find it interesting enough to learn more about.

Considering the handiness and near ubiquity of html in internet communication, why doesn't Twitter support html?

An even better question might be why doesn't the comment section of Freakonomics?

Jason Merry

Since only using Twitter for about 3 weeks now, the TinyURL is a very handy tool.

Having seen tinyURL in magazines over the last 3 years, I am glad I have finally used it as it makes life so much easier.

As mentioned, emails can truncate long links so the user has to copy and paste. I have worked on emails where the URL is shortened by the software and is still able to be tracked. This helps in not loosing valuable traffic which is definately a good thing.

As for the sites that offer tinyURL's, there are 2 ways they could go:
1. Offer the software to corporations that need or want to use it and have that hosted on the buyers server.
2. Charge a small fee for a set number of links or a monthly contract for unlimited links.

Both of these options are not going to bode well for everyone, but if you want the middle man to survive, it is going to cost someone.


Solution: Twitter provides its own URL shortening service. If they go, they only break their own shortened links.

Chris Miner

Twitter is really irrelevant wrt the need for shortened urls.

Most sites do not have simple bookmarkable urls. They often include a long list of query parameters (everything after the '?' in the url) that are mostly meaningless. Take a google maps url as an example. I've sent these to a number of intelligent average internet users and they couldn't manage to access the destination because of the need for pasting them back together after they are cut in half during mailing.

On the subject of twitter, understand that each message is exactly as long as an SMS. The shorted link needs to live in that case exactly as long as the SMS is relevant. I can't imagine anyone but spammers using short links on a normal web site.

Allison @ Worthington Wire

Great article as usual.

It will be linked as today's best of the web on Worthington Wire under the online Life category. The link will go live at 8 CST.



Twitter is not moronic or irrelevant. Dismissing it as such is an indication that you are stuck at Stage 1. Try it out before you dismiss it out of hand.

As for URL shorteners, I can see how they could mangle internet traffic and skew site traffic data but that's why sites like are so useful. There is built-in reporting of traffic usage and I love that it provides a very clear picture of how much use a given short URL gets. It is even possible to shorten the same URL several times and post it on different systems (Twitter, Facebook, blog, etc) to see which drives the most traffic.


In any html read interface link shorteners are generally unnecesarry because you can hide your links behind keyword. Thank to malware though, Internet savvy people may mistrust a blind link from an interface like a cell phone.

#1 you are right. We sites can provide redirectors quite simply to content on their own site. As you said youtube do it and so do Microsoft. Ebay is just lazy.


I don't believe the 'link rot' problem is such a big deal with Twitter, where tweets are sort of short-lived and in the moment anyway, like Johnny Carson jokes about Murphy Brown or whatever.