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The Skinny on URL Shorteners

Amidst the rapid rise of Twitter and other micro-blogging solutions, it appears that URL shorteners have made everyone’s short list (be forewarned, more puns will follow shortly) of useful utilities. 

They seem too good to be true. They banish long and indecipherable Web addresses. They make your Tweets more Tweetable. Twitter consoles such as Twhirl and Tweetdeck have shorteners built in, and thus reduce the time it takes to shrink a URL. 

But as you casually go about your Twittering, URL-shortening day, you may well wonder about the implications of sharing links in this way. After all, links are the connective tissue, the fabric of the Web. Search engine algorithms analyze links to help determine page relevance and website authority.   

Further, as I blogged recently (see Changing Nature of Web Influence), more and more people are finding content from links shared via Twitter and social networks. In fact this method of content discovery is starting to give search engines a real run for the money. 

So, before you shorten that next URL, it seems reasonable to consider the following questions: is there a downside to using URL shorteners? Do they adversely impact SEO? Are some URL shorteners better than others? And is there a danger that they will stop working at some point, making your legacy links useless? 

Forcing the Issue 

My questions about URL shorteners were motivated by a recent meeting involving a client, their SEO specialist and the Fusion PR team. We were discussing a social media program involving client-led blogs and Twitter. When the conversation turned to Twitter and its growing importance, the SEO specialist remarked about possible negative SEO implications of using URL shorteners to communicate client blog links. 

Intrigued, I thought about this for a bit after the meeting. After all, I knew that SEO conventional wisdom says that to get the most “link juice” from inbound links, the URL strings should contain keywords that relate to the referenced content. And the anchor text (the descriptive label that is hyperlinked) should be relevant. 

In most cases shortened URLs aren’t wrapped in anchor text and are randomly generated strings appended to the domain name of the shortening service. So, it did seem obvious that shortened URLs may not have the same impact as using a conventional link. 

I called the SEO specialist Matt Hooks, leader of Natural Search at Leverage Marketing, to find out more. He pointed out that some of the URL shorteners provide analytics, thus offering a way to get detailed information about who clicked on the links. He agreed there could be a danger of links becoming useless at some point if the particular service went away. Hooks said the links are most often treated by the search engine crawlers as a “redirect” meaning, in layman’s terms, the crawler can trace back to the original full length referring URL. 

Finally, Hooks said linking to your site, even through a URL shortening service, may actually result in an SEO boost because shortened URLs are often used on “real time” sites such as Twitter. Using a shortened URL on this type of site is an indicator of content freshness. 

The Mega Index 

Digging deeper, a few quick searches on Google revealed a plethora of articles on the topic, most of which were pretty recent and a written by search engine and Web influencers. It’s clearly a hot topic. 

None other than search engine guru Dan Sullivan covered these utilities in detail last month in his article URL Shorteners: Which Service Should you Use 

The article features a table showing an in-depth comparison of the URL shortening service options. It opened my eyes to the range of choices in this space and features that are important to consider. One of the most important is the type of redirect. According to the article, you want a 301 redirect if you care about the SEO implications for your link: 

A 301 redirect says that the URL requested (the short URL) has “permanently” moved to the long address. Since it’s a permanent redirect, search engines finding links to the short URLs will credit all those links to the long URL 

Most of the URL shortening services results in this type of redirect but not all do. 

Size does matter, and not all shorteners are created equally when it comes to their URL shrinking abilities. Is.gd is on par with a number of others that get the shortened character count down to 18. Is.gd is great for shortening URLs on your smart phone, since there are fewer characters in the domain name to enter. 

Ironically, TinyURL – one of the leading names – results in URL strings of 25 characters, the most out of the services reviewed. 

The article and its accompanying chart rank the leading URL shorteners in terms of other factors, such as client support (i.e. which consoles have them already built-in), analytics, and so on. 

He also covers the question about stability:

Aside from short-term stability issues, there’s also a long-term consideration. What happens if a service shuts down… If a service goes down permanently, it takes down all those links that were passing along credit to your site with it… TinyURL has been around since 2002, so it has some stature in the space. Newer service Bit.ly recently raised $2 million in funding, which suggests it has some people willing to sink money into its future. But neither stature or investment is a guarantee of long-term success.

The URL Shortener-SEO Cage Match 

The topic has become rather heated and controversial, as evidenced by all the recent articles and chatter, and the title of the article on DevCentral: The URL Shortener-SEO Cage Match.   

The article cited a post by Delicious Founder Joshua Shachter URL Shorteners are bad for the web. 

Schachter’s post seemed to capture the objections that many Web purists, developers and SEO specialists have about URL shorteners: the utilities add one more variable (and potential unknownto what is already an imperfect system of resolving Web addresses, and create potential usability and security issues: 

The worst problem is that shortening services add another layer of indirection to an already creaky system... a link that used to be transparent is now opaque and requires a lookup operation... It certainly makes it harder to track down links to the published site if the publisher ever needs to reach their authors. And the publisher may lose information about the source of its traffic.

The extra layer of indirection slows down browsing with additional DNS lookups and server hits. A new and potentially unreliable middleman now sits between the link and its destination. And the long-term archivability of the hyperlink now depends on the health of a third party.

There are usability issues as well. The clicker can’t even tell by hovering where a link will take them, which is bad form… And just like ad networks, link shortening services could track a user’s behavior across many domains. That makes the paranoid among us uncomfortable. We hope the shortener never decides to add interstitials or otherwise “monetize” the link with ads, but we have no guarantee.

Who Are These People? 

Who are these companies and what are their business models? In doing my research I learned that it is fairly easy to write and host a URL shortening program; and that there are many potential roads to revenue, allaying my concerns about stability. 

URL shorteners may be an affront to purists and developers; but their utility trumps these concerns, in my opinion. Tweets tend to be transitory and I am not sure if the world will come crashing down if a three year old link in some long forgotten Tweet stops working. 

They should help when it comes to promoting content, or at least do no harm; and given the growing momentum for URL shortening, you would have to think that developers and Google are working on their algorithms as we speak to make sure shortening does not detract, and in fact may enhance search engine ranking for the referenced content. 

Shortened Conclusion 

The long and short of it, for those who just want the skinny, is that utility of URL shorteners outweighs drawbacks.


Bob Geller is a Senior VP at Fusion Public Relations. He blogs at Fusion PR Forum and on his own blog, Flack’s Revenge. You can follow him on Twitter and read his profile here.

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