We’ve all seen them – the short links which appear in social media posts and digital marketing which reduces a long web address into just a few characters.

But how much do you actually know about them? Why to use them, where to use them and, more importantly, how to use them?

The basics of Short Links

Firstly, what is a Short Link? You will have most likely seen them used on Twitter or on other social media platforms and for many years the main players were TinyURL, Bit.ly or Ow.ly.

Now there are lots of options when it comes to being able to cut down a long web address into something manageable.

The first to launch was way back in 2002, when web developer Kevin Gilbertson devised TinyURL as a way to post links in newsgroup postings which frequently had long, cumbersome addresses. Email systems used to wrap content after 80 characters, thus breaking any long URLs that might have been linked in the message’s copy.

Then platforms like Twitter, with its initial 140 character limit, made sharing some URLs impossible if you wanted to include any kind of comment as well. 

And so, as Derric Haynie so eloquently says on the rebrandly blog – Short URLs came about because ultimately: “We want to take something long and ugly, then make it short and cute.”

Dilemmas in Digital Marketing

Web addresses are often long because they’re using keywords or phrases to tie into Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) which is aimed at making their website rank as high as possible in a search engine results list.

This creates a dilemma for any digital marketer because we use the URL to help describe the content of the article or web page you’ll land on when you click it, but they’re lengthy and make sharing on email, social media and other messaging services, difficult.

After all, if you’re sending a text message to your mate, do you want to type out – www.thisisareallylongaddressforsomethinginteresting.co.uk or a short URL like http://read.this?

A shorter URL might be a necessity if you’re posting to social media platforms where there are character limits (SMSs or Twitter for example) or if you just want to make it easier for someone who is reading printed material to type into a browser search bar.

The Advantages of Short Links

I’ve talked about a few of them already, they simply look better, they’re easier to remember and easier to type, they take up less space.

Short Links can also be branded, which basically means you could have all links which direct traffic to your website using a version of your business’ name. 

With a custom domain for your link shortener potential visitors can see it is associated with your brand and are more likely to link on your domain shortened link than a generic one. Using a branded Short URL – here at Beacon we use bcn.to – gives a potential visitor the confidence that they’re being directed to your company website.

Spammers have been known to use short form web addresses to disguise the fact they’re trying to direct your visit elsewhere or to send you to a site which contains spyware or other malicious software.
Also, According to RadiumOne, URL shorteners that offer vanity domains can increase sharing up to 25 percent.

IMAGE: RadiumOne

There is also another important advantage which can be built into a Short URL – tracking. 

Adding tracking to Short Links can be done via UTM codes, although this creates an even longer and ungainly web address if you need to post it anywhere.

Some shorten services automatically build in tracking to their URL system – Beacon Short Links do this, which allows you to follow the visitor journey to website from whatever platform you’re using.

There are sites like Where Does This Link Go? Which can help you determine if the Short Link is a safe one but not every visitor is going to take the time to do that. So try and make sure you’re using a branded URL shortener or make it clear on your social media platforms that you use Short Links for web addresses.

Also, Short Links are often not visible because platforms use Social Cards which replace them. When you post to Facebook (and other platforms like LinkedIn and Twitter) and include a link, the platform pulls up a box which allows you to alter text. 

It will also pull up an image if there is one on the page and the link itself may be hidden completely. Having ready-made images you can include which have your full web address included is another method for building up trust when using Short Links.

Be aware though, that as shortened links hide the final web address destination, you need to make sure that the page you’re directing to isn’t going to change or be archived, leaving a dead link in the future.

Use a 301 Moved Permanently redirect if you change pages around. This will pass between 90 and 99% of all links to the new page according to Google. This is the best method for implementing redirects on a website.

Disadvantages 

Of course, it’s not all plain sailing, there can be disadvantages to using Short Links. I’ve mentioned them briefly above with regards to distrust because of spammers.
Twitter’s own in-built shortener means you can post a full web address in your Tweet and it will be automatically shortened. It also helps protect users from malicious sites as Twitter’s link service is checked against a list of potentially dangerous sites. Users will be warned with an error message before proceeding.

IMAGE: Twitter

One of the other biggest problems is that a Short URL can be redirected through multiple servers and require multiple DNS (Domain Name Server) lookups before it reaches the final destination. 

Although with today’s fast fibre and better connectivity throughout the web it’s not as big an issue as it was in the early days.

You are, however, relying on a third party service to redirect your links correctly and you’re at their mercy in the event of them ceasing trading. Now, while that’s highly unlikely with any of the big name players, it is a consideration you need to take into account.

To Conclude

Use Short Links wisely. You may not always need one. You will get tracking through an ordinary web address if you’re using Google Analytics, and from individual social media platforms’ own analytics data. 

Or you can use a fully functioning analytics app like Beacon to gain real insight into how your digital marketing campaigns work.

Share your content appropriately. Use Short Links where they make sense and on platforms which have restricted character limits. You’ll find a natural pattern falls for which type of content needs a URL shortener and which web address can be posted as is.