The Case Against Link Shorteners

Link ShortenersBranded links are cool. It’s great to be able to get rid of ugly long links replete with strings of tracking and affiliate codes and replace them with short links that contain the name of your company or site. It looks good on social media, and it helps present a coherent brand image to web users. But, however cool they are, short links suck, and they suck because they break online transparency and user experience in some key ways.

Firstly, they’re mostly unnecessary. Back in the day, if you wanted to share a link on Twitter, the link counted towards your character limit. If your link was long, the rest of the text in your tweet had to be very short. That’s no longer the case. Twitter uses its own link shortening technology, and however long the link you paste into Twitter, it’ll only take up 22 characters of your Tweet (it’ll also take up 22 characters if the original URL was shorter than that — all links on Twitter are “shortened”). One of the benefits of relying on Twitter’s own shortener is that it displays the beginning of the original link, rather than a shortened version.

Lack Of Transparency And Security

Which brings us to the second reason that link shortening is a bad idea: it obfuscates where links lead. If all your links look like “mycompany/fhr744”, the user has no idea where they are going to end up. Malicious individuals frequently use link shortening to trick users into visiting malware sites and the like. On the modern web, there’s really no reason to obscure your link’s destination. Yes, the typical website anchor text also obscures the link’s destination, but it does so in a way that’s transparent to browsers — users can have a look at where the link leads if they want to.

Twitter’s link shortener will check for malware and bad sites automatically, which is another reason it’s better to rely on it rather than a third-party solution.

Link Rot

There’s no guarantee that your short links are going to work forever: shortened links are far more likely to succumb to link rot than normal links. Link shorteners are web services, and web services go out of business or are acquired all the time. If your link shortening service shuts down, every shortened link you’ve created will die with it.

Poor Mobile UX

Shortened links are not great for mobile. To use a personal example: I’m a writer, and I do a lot of my initial research on my iPad. That usually involves finding interesting things to write about and sending them off to another application for later action. So I might find a link on Twitter and send it to Instapaper. Short links quite often don’t work well with services like Instapaper and Pinboard, which adds an extra and annoying step — I have to reconstitute the original link before I send it off to another app.

Additionally, modern web pages contain a lot of meta data that mobile applications use when presenting information to users — both Twitter and Facebook leverage meta data when displaying shared links. Short links prevent services from accessing that meta data reliably, which degrades user experience and reduces engagement and traffic for your shared links. That’s one of the reasons feed reader Feedly retired its link shortener.

Reduced Performance

And if all that doesn’t convince you: link shorteners add at least one extra redirection step for users visiting your site: depending on the quality of your link shortening service, that could add a significant amount of time to users’ perceptions of your site’s performance, and that’s assuming the link shortening service manages to remain up constantly: if it goes down your links won’t take users anywhere.

All of which leads to the inevitable conclusion that although link shorteners are cool, they’re not worth the user experience cost. Disagree? Let us know in the comments below, or on Twitter and Facebook.

Matthew Davis is a technical writer and Linux geek for Future Hosting.

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