One of the most viral activities on the Web is sharing links. It is fast and easy, and a good way to communicate ideas. What started out as something people did via e-mail and bookmark-sharing services like Delicious, is now moving to Facebook, Twitter, and other social broadcasting services. It is just so much more efficient to share a link once with all your friends and followers than to send it to each one individually.
Twitter is especially suited to sharing quick links, but its 140-character limit has perhaps done more than anything else to propel forward the use of URL shorteners. These take long URLs and turn them into shorter ones that usually redirect people back to the original. So for instance, http://www.techcrunch.com/2009/04/06/revolution-money-raises-another-42-million-for-alternative-payment-service-nobody-is-using/ becomes http://tinyurl.com/coflho or http://bit.ly/q3Sl9 or http://digg.com/u1LRR.
There are more than a dozen such services, including TinyURL, bit.ly, Snurl, tr.im, is.gd, and the new Diggbar. The better ones offer tracking stats. One of them, bit.ly, just raised $2 million. Nobody really likes them, but they are a necessary evil. How else are you going to share links on Twitter without having the URL take up half the message?
It may be more complicated than that, however. Joshua Schachter, the founder of Delicious, thinks they are downright evil. Schachter writes, “The worst problem is that shortening services add another layer of indirection to an already creaky system.” In other words, they slow down the Web. He gives several other reasons why they are bad as well. They add a whole new slew of middlemen to the equation, and these links become dependent on the continued existence of these startups or even the whimsical changes in their terms of service. URL shorteners make links opaque, which spammers love.
They also add an unnecessary extra step to what should be a fairly simple message. Some, like Digg’s new Diggbar, also steal link juice from the original destination by wrapping the Website in a frame rather than redirecting to it. That just messes with the whole link structure of the Web. If I am linking to your story using a shortened Digg URL, Digg gets the credit, not your Website. Most URL shorteners don’t do this, but If Digg is successful with its new feature, they may follow suit. If that becomes an accepted practice on the Web, it would create all sorts of complications for the search engines in terms of duplication and making sure the underlying link gets the proper ranking.
There is a simple solution to all of this. Services like Twitter could simply do a better job of incorporating links into their design by allowing users to hyperlink existing words in their messages, without wasting space by displaying the actual URL. This is how FriendFeed handles the issue. Or it could carve out a separate place for links outside the message (perhaps through a “link” button at the bottom of each Tweet). The only reason to keep the URL within the message itself is for SMS messages, and for those perhaps Twitter would be better off creating its own URL shortening service that can become the standard, or buy one of the existing ones. If it ever does go the acquisition route, bit.ly might be a leading candidate. It was created by Betaworks, the main investor behind the startup Twitter purchased last year (Summize) when it realized it needed its own real-time search engine.
So are URL shorteners necessary or just evil?