The True Value of URL Shorteners

I have been watching the discussion on URL shortening that followed the funding of bit.ly with great interest and some surprise. Josh Schachter started it off. Dave Winer, Cory Doctorow and Howard Lindzon, among others, followed. The points raised are indeed interesting, but what is so surprising to me is that the answer to all of the concerns is not only so simple, but right in front of their noses.

First, some background. URL shortening has been around for years. It long preceded TinyURL and has always been good business. We got into the business in 1997 with Domain Direct, a service that dealt with what we called at that time the “~ problem.” This was the long and embarrassing URL that came along with the free webspace most ISPs provided at the time. It also dealt with the long and embarrassing URLs that came with free websites from the likes of Tripod and Angelfire.

TinyURL and the like came along years later with the purpose of making the sharing of temporary URLs (blog posts and news items mostly) much easier, but they are not as effective as a domain name for permanent URLs, like http://noss.org/work. The experience with Domain Direct and a love of URL shortening was what drove our thinking in coming up with Hover.

URL forwarding services have three goals. They should be easy to use, should make long, complicated URLs short, and the resulting URLs should be memorable. Easy is a function of the tools (and I do think our tools at Hover are the easiest available). Short and memorable are a function of the semantics.

When looking at “short” we should be clear that it is only in Twitter, and then again only in the rare Twitter post, that “hyper-short” matters.

It is with “memorable” that the difference really emerges. So let me be clear. The best “URL-shortening service” is simply a combination of great tools and your own domain name. The difference in using http://noss.org/bitly and http://is.gd/pind is huge in terms of “memorable.” Not only is the shortened URL easier to remember; it becomes a bit of personal branding (I hate using the word “branding” in this context but I do not have a better alternative. The whole concept of earned media is definitely relevant here), especially when the shortened URL is shared forward by a third party!

Of course, using your own domain to create forwards also addresses all of the concerns of control, archiving, spamminess and other evils that were raised in the original posts and elsewhere. I have now had this conversation with three hardcore geeks and when I say “Look, the answer is simple. Just use your own domain and CNAMEs!” they just stare at me and say “Oh yeah. I never thought of that.”!

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