Getting exposure online is a snap, thanks to the myriad ways people can share your content with other people. Digital word of mouth is a powerful tool that can boost your business, but these days you’re better off leaving your conversations short and sweet. If your business uses e-mail and text alerts or social media such as Twitter or depends on viral recommendations from bloggers or happy customers, it’s time to consider a URL shortener.
URL shorteners are nifty services that allow you to convert any URL into a compact little link that’s perfect for sharing. URL shorteners have been around for years, mainly to keep lengthy URLs from breaking in e-mail or to turn ugly URLs into more attractive and sharable links, but they’ve only recently come into the spotlight because of the exploding popularity of Twitter and text messaging that limits messages to 140 characters or less. In response, companies such as Amazon are using URL shorteners to allow people to shrink product links into more manageable URLs that are easy to pass on.
For example, say a customer wants to tweet their recommendation of Microsoft Office 2008 for Mac. The link to this product is a mouthful at 249 characters:
But with a URL shortener, it’s a bite-sized link that’s only 19 characters long: amzn.com/B000WR2F2M.
For all their greatness, there are some cons to using URL shorteners. Most of these challenges, however, can be met with the right shortening service.
Most URL shorteners create a redirect link based on a random path that’s tied to the hosted service’s domain name (e.g., http://tinyurl.com/nm48w9). Valuable branding for your business is lost every time the shortened URL is shared; instead it’s given to the hosted URL shortener. Thankfully, some URL shorteners allow you to add custom names or vanity URLs to protect your brand (e.g., http://tinyurl.com/yourbusiness). TinyURL, bit.ly, Cligs, and Snurl are just some of the shorteners that offer this feature.
An even better idea is to register your own shortened domain that points to your original Web address, or set up a URL-shortening service that runs off your own domain or Web server. Google Short Links is an easy-to-use service that doesn’t require any level of technical prowess to install (i.e., no MySQL databases or PHP scripts involved) or space on your server. As long as your domain uses Google Apps, your Web site users can shorten any of your URLs into descriptive and memorable links. For the more technically advanced, or those willing to shell out some money to a programmer, look for services that give you complete control by allowing you to install scripts directly onto your server. Some good scripts to check out are Kissa.be and Shorty.
Search Engine Optimization
One of the benefits of long URLs is that they contain valuable keywords that boost the relevance of your page in search engine results. If your business relies on search engine optimization functions to drive traffic to your site, URL shortening is not a good idea unless you control the creation. The good news is that many URL shorteners now come with SEO functionalities such as standard analytics, tracking, and metrics, so you can measure the click-throughs and popularity of specific URLs. Businesses that use SEO should choose their URL shorteners based on their SEO capabilities.
Reliability and Security
Finally, the main complaint against URL shorteners is that if the service you’re using temporarily shuts down or disappears for good, your customers are stuck with a bunch of broken links and nowhere to go. Even worse, if the service is hacked, all of your links could be subject to potential phishing attacks or spam. This is a fast way to turn off customers from your Web site for good. Again, the best way to combat this is to set up your own shortened domain or install a URL shortener on your own server. If this is out of the question, choose an established shortening service that’s been around for a while. With so many shortening services jumping on the bandwagon, you want to make sure you choose one that will stay on for the long haul and not fall off when the ride is done.