URL Shortening

In other news..

One thing which has been working quite well in my migration (and one of a large number of reasons behind said migration) is my own URL shortener. In this case, I’m pretty much a happy camper. 🙂

Heard about self-hosted URL shorteners on several occasions and remember hearing about YOURLS (the system I’m using) during JĂ©rĂ´me Paradis‘s presentation at WordCamp MontrĂ©al. (Interestingly, JĂ©rĂ´me’s latest post is about URL shortening.)

Not only do JĂ©rĂ´me and Kim do all sorts of cool stuff with YOURLS and other tools, but I’d been meaning to “go short.” At least to try it. Not just because “all the cool kids are doing it.” Because my participant-observation stuff implies that I should try stuff out. URL shortening wasn’t a huge priority, but it was on my list.

So, what’s URL shortening, you ask?

Well, it’s very simple. You take [insert Crisco joke here] and add URL..

Somewhat more seriously, and from my personal perspective..

Short URLs are services which convert URLs containing lots of characters into short versions, containing much fewer characters. Along with this conversion, URL shorteners also provide some services which go along with those URLs. Most notably “analytics” or statistics about clicks.

Here’s an example of a long URL:

http://collectingtokens.files.wordpress.com/2010/11/pa280823.jpg?w=480&h=640

Here’s a shortened version:

http://lar.me/2h

Another shortened version:

http://xkr.in/AcceptingThanks

They all point to the same thing, this image from a friend‘s blog:

Accepting Thanks

Ambiguity
Accepting Thanks Giving Orders Now

One item, many URLs. Not so unified, eh?

So, it is about adding an extra step in the transmission of URLs. Both ways. When you post a link, you convert to a short form. And when you click on a link, the same service expands from the short form to a long form, so you can get the actual destination of the URL.

Basically, encoding and decoding. In the Shannon/Weaver model of communication which is so prevalent in the “online worldview,” a very familiar process.

With some disadvantages and benefits.

The most obvious benefit is probably the number of character used to transmit the URL. Which might explain the popularity of such URL shortening services. While the basic idea was probably on people’s minds for a long time, it mostly took off with short-form communication (such as SMS/texting and chat) and especially with microblogging. In some ways, short URLs are associated in people’s minds with Twitter but they have other uses.

In all of these cases, the number of character is somewhat constrained. In chat, there may not be an actual limit, but people don’t want to type long URLs. In SMS and in most microblogging systems (which take their limits from SMS), there’s an official limit which, it turns out, is related to work by Friedhelm Hillebrand and (interestingly, given some comments about issues surrounding length) to telex.

The point being that these services have length limits from convention, rule, or habit. And short URLs help avoid these limits. Copying and pasting URLs is actually a very common thing to do, online.

So it makes sense to have services which help in the process. In fact, I’m still surprised that there aren’t more services around this. Such as a service which allows for quick pasting links from your personal database of links into any document on any machine.

And this is one of the somewhat unexpected benefits of URL shortening..

Sure, URLs are shorter. But you can also make them more memorable, (1) easier to type from memory. Actually, since URL shorteners work as “personal databases of links,” they can help in the (2) retrieval of some links, a bit in the way “social bookmarking” works. Using a “custom domain,” it is possible to customize these links, (3) making them more personal. They also serve as a (4) list of recent items, with some neat searching features.

Plus, you get those “analytics” I mentioned earlier. One obvious benefit of this is that you can (5) track a marketing campaign or (6) follow the spread of some “viral content.” Neat stuff which gets some people’s panties in a knot.

But, wait! There’s more!

Statistics on short URLs allow you to (7) assess trends in behaviour. Clicking is the simplest online behaviour and observing this behaviour is fascinating for anyone doing anything online, regardless of marketing and SEO and virality and clickthrough rates. Clicking is just an indicator of something but, in aggregate, it may help you understand what’s going on. The analogy I have in my mind is about whether or not students are engaging with readings. So I’m thinking here about course-specific Web analytics the way “clickers” are making some people all giddy.

Then, there’s a potential use for short URLs as a way to (8) way to fight linkrot. The way this works is that a personal shortlink database is modifiable. So you can actually change the long version of the link, if the “destination URL” has changed. Sure, it still requires some work, but there’s a benefit, here.

Once links are in your personal database, you can (9) build collections of links. Again, pretty much like a “social bookmarking service.” It’s not because it’s already done through other methods that it’s not fun.

A personal use that is related to other ones but I find fun is as (10) a reading list. Basically, as I accumulate links in my personal database, I’m building lists of things I want to keep, somehow. I could integrate it into something like InstaPaper, or Diigo, etc. to construct lists of things I want to read (or watch, listen to, play with..).

Something obvious from the start and still cool is that URL shorteners provide tools to (11) easily share individual links, often in the form of bookmarklets, tools, “click to copy” buttons, and Twitter/Facebook integration. Similarly, I can have RSS feeds of my shortened links, (12) easily sharing collections of items.

I mentioned bookmarklets but one (13) very neat method for getting links in your personal database in the first place is to add the URL shortening domain in the URL bar, followed by a slash. Sounds complicated but it’s very easy to use and about as convenient as you can get.

And a “totally not obvious, gosh this is so geeky” use that I personally like, I can have a special URL shortening service to (14) share things only with that special someone.

I could possibly go on and on, talking about obvious, extended, and potential benefits. But I don’t feel like it.

There are also disadvantages. While I’m acutely aware of them, I also don’t feel like spending too much time on them.

A large set of disadvantages have to do with the fact that shortlinks hide their “destination.” So, when you see a short URL, you can’t tell where it’s leading you. So, for one thing, you don’t know whether you’re being sent to a YouTube video, a PDF on a university server, an MP3 file from the same site, or an article in a major publication. All of this can be quite annoying and shortcircuits some link-following behaviour. Much worse is the fact that the destination can be a potentially very dangerous place. There are some rather nasty things which can be done to someone who merely follows a link.

But:

a) Following a link should already be about negotiated trust, and some harmless-looking links may also send you just about anywhere.

b) Maintaining short URLs puts power in the hands of the linker (the person creating the link), instead of the person in charge of the content which is linked. As mentioned in terms of linkrot, it means that the person who adds the link can change it if the destination has changed, including if there’s been an exploit of that landing page.

c) There are multiple services out there to “preview” short URLs, showing you where they lead. Some of them show you the long URL any time you mouse over a short URL. Others actually (such as the New Twitter and several Twitter apps) show you the results, visually. Yet others may warn you if a particular link seems to be inappropriate in some way.

d) Some “branded URL shorteners” actually tell you something about the destination. The main examples are TechCrunch and The New York Times. In both cases (at least, if I understand correctly), URLs beginning with the custom domain refer to pages on the actual domain. So, if you see a link starting with “nyti.ms,” you know it’s leading to NYT content and a link starting with “tcrn.ch” should be from a TechCrunch page.

I’m actually doing something similar to the last point in that, so far at least, all links on enk.im are to content on my own Enkerli.com domain.

As you might have noticed, if you’ve been mousing over my links, I’m using another domain, here: Lar.me. This is my main URL shortening domain, at this point. I was actually pretty glad to be able to get it as it’s relatively short (a high value for a domain used in URL shortening) and it actually spells out a word [Well, «larme» is French for “tear” or “teardrop.” Not the cheeriest word in the world but it still works: my shortlinks are like little tears.] And I’ve been going overboard with it.

As for the domain I use with my sweetheart, it’s a secret!

I still have some stuff to say about short URLs. Especially about what I like about YOURLS. But that will have to wait.

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