Long URLs are a problem in our online connected world, when sent via email they wrap and break, when pasted into a Twitter post they use up too many of your available characters. The need to shorten URLs for sharing has created quite an industry of sites offering URL shortening services: tinyurl.com bit.ly ow.ly to name a few.
If you’re not familiar with URL shortening services here’s a quick primer: You enter into their system a long URL like http://www.walmart.com/ip/Coleman-PowerChill-40-Quart-Thermoelectric-Cooler-with-Power-Supply/4810828 and the service adds your URL to their database and creates a unique short URL that will redirect to the address you entered, like http://bit.ly/9IBCdN.
URL shorteners are super helpful, but are there downsides to their use?
Every time you use a URL shortening service you are in effect promoting that service. While http://bit.ly/9IBCdN will direct readers to the travel cooler I had in mind, before they click all their eyes see is http://bit.ly. I have never had a single bad association in my mind with regard to any URL shortening service, but there is certainly the possibility of someone out there not trusting a bit.ly link or having their own brand bias. The links you post do say something about you, even the short versions of them, therefore wouldn’t it be better if the short URL they saw helped promote me or my brand instead?
You’ll see examples of this in the wild, For example the NY Times uses the domain http://nyti.ms/ for its URL shortening. Even if you don’t click the link just looking at the URL reinforces their brand in your mind.
I had been thinking about all of this so one morning I decided to see if I could improve the link shortening I do when Twitter posting to reinforce my own personal brand. It was shockingly easy to do.
The real key to URL shortening is the length of the short URL you’re using. People probably prefer bit.ly to tinyurl.com because bit.ly is so much shorter, but URL length cannot be your only consideration. If the URL was a little longer but was more valuable, maybe the tradeoff would be worth it?
I realized that my domain plate.net is pretty short, shorter than tinyurl.com in fact. But the domain wes.plate.net more completely identifies me and better reinforces my personal “Wes Plate” brand, and it is still pretty short. I proceeded to install some URL shortening software into my wes.plate.net domain, I chose to put it into a subdirectory because I couldn’t have it conflict with WordPress, which is what you see at http://wes.plate.net. There are at least a few options for installing your own URL shortening service, I ended up choosing YOURLS a free collection of PHP and MySQL that is super easy to use. In addition, YOURLS can integrate into Twitter clients like TweetDeck, Tweetie and Twitter for iPhone, which makes putting your short URL into use that much easier. In the end a short URL like http://wes.plate.net/~/G isn’t quite as short as http://bit.ly/cgbmxm but it is more valuable to me because my version reinforces my brand and not bit.ly’s.
So now every link I post on Twitter is both short and also reinforces my brand, whether the reader clicks the link or not. A friend even noticed and complimented me on it, so to me it is already working. If your domain name is short enough or you can obtain one that resembles your brand, it may be a worthwhile exercise for you too.