The Good and Bad of Tiny URLs

The Uniform Resource Locator/URL is a tool allowing users to locate and access resources available on the Internet. Most of us are familiar with the format http://www.somwhereontheinternet.com, which is a URL telling your browser to use the hypertext transfer protocol/HTTP to display a file located at the Internet domain somewhereontheinternet.com.

Depending on where a file or resource is located on the destination server, a URL can quickly become very complicated, with displays such as http://www.somewhereontheinternet.com/news/news-releases/2008/august/1035587ssebn2008.html relatively common.

Many innovations throughout history have emerged because people need to simplify complex ideas or operations into something that is usable. For example, 40 years ago we used slide rules in school to help us shorten the time it took for complex trigonometry and logarithms. Many people thought that was blasphemous, as it removed most students from going through the pain of doing long hand mathematics.

Now we use calculators, and it is probable that no student born since 1960 has ever seen a slide rule.

The Complex URL Falls into the History Books

Internet users are getting tired of typing in complex URLs, as they make mistakes, cannot remember complex URLs, or simply don’t want to be bothered being forced to mentally dig too deep into the technology of the Internet. People simply want to display stuff on their screens, whether PDAs or 24 inch monitors, and engage in the utility of the Internet – rather than becoming systems engineers.

Complex and extended URLs have even recently gained the nickname of “Dirty URLs,” as they are often encumbered with lots of weird punctuation marks and identifiers that make them look more like an alien or ancient Egyptian script, rather than a useful business identifier or tool for the masses.

The MiniURL is a step towards making the Internet a friendlier place for users and content producers. The underlying complexity of the URL will stay, as data will still physically or logically reside in some deep dark place on a server or within a cloud, however the human representation of that location is made simple. Take our complex example from above:

http://www.somewhereontheinternet.com/news/news-releases/2008/august/1035587ssebn2008.html

When sent through a URL shortening service, such as TinyURL (we’ll post a listing of URL shortening services later in the post) this complex URL may come out of the shortening engine to look like: http://tinyurl.com/nf7otw. Not bad, eh?

This is very good for most people, particularly microbloggers using services such as Twitter, which only allow a maximum of 140 characters per post. It is also much easier to post MiniURLs into instant messengers such as Yahoo and MSN Messenger, or even into email messages where you need to be succinct or are afraid of mistyping an important URL you need to get into the hands of a partner or client.

How Do We Shorten URLs?

There are now quite a few URL shortening services available on the Internet. While there are some subtle differences between the services, for the most part the service offers a simple outcome – taking a DirtyURL and making it a short URL.

There are two main types of URL shorteners, those which allow you to paste a Dirty URL into a window on the website, and those which are embedded within an application such as WordPress that produce a MiniURL (in WordPress called a “Sortlink”) simply by clicking a button next to the original DirtyURL.

Example – TinyURL

TinyURL is one of the best known URL Shorteners. TinyURL offers three main services, including:

  • Web-based shortener available on the TinyURL website – you just go to their website and type in your DirtyURL for an on-demand MiniURL
  • A web browser toolbar plug in that allows you to paste URLs directly off a web page you may be reading, and immediately create a MiniURL
  • A website redirect service, which offers a MiniURL for any file within a specified directory within your website

How do they do it? That is fairly easy as well. A DirtyURL is taken by the URL shortener software, and an alias is created by the shortener application. The alias is matched to the DirtyURL in the shortener service’s “hashed” or encrypted data base, and each lookup for the URL is made against the shortener’s domain plus the “hashed” alias. Or,

DirtyURL-> shortener service -> alias/MiniURL created-> database entry made-> MiniURL returned to requester

When a user requests the MiniURL, the first request goes to TinyURL (tinyurl.com), and the TinyURL server looks up the alias, and finally redirects the browser to the original DirtyURL.

In reality, the whole concept was designed to remove the average user from thinking about this complex process, and only worry about creating and typing human-friendly URLs.

Why Some People Dislike MiniURLs

Most companies and organizations are using the Internet as an integral part of the identity and branding. You see domain names everywhere there is advertising. You will see http://www.something.com plastered on the sides of buses, food wrappers, pens, clothing, and anything else that can possibly used as a marketing tool. MiniURLs do not support branding.

There are some significant risks as well. Reliability being among the highest. If the shortening service has technical problems, is shut down, or is sold, links to the service and alias database may stop working. Then, if you have made a significant distribution of your MiniURL, you may end up with dozens or hundreds of dead links, and a lot of confused users.

There is no regulation of MiniURLs, which may open privacy concerns. As most of the URL shortening services are free or hosted, then you really have no idea what marketing or data collection is occurring each time a user clicks on your MiniURL. Is the URL shortening service selling your data and your customer data to marketing companies? Governments? Thieves? You really have no control over the potential data collection of persons using your MiniURL. Much better to bring the shortening application in-house if you need to use a MiniURL.

These are real, and legitimate concerns that any business owner must carefully consider before allowing their mission-critical website, image, or branding to go out of their control.

However, the Internet Will Change to make Life Easier for Users

The MiniURL is a good concept. I like the idea of embedding MiniURLs into hyperlinks that will translate as an alias to the DirtyURL destination file. It is good, but we need to ensure we do not lose control of our data.

Here is a short list from MasterMedia of URL shortening companies and services you can check out, test, and decide if their service will meet your needs to help simplify the Internet!

By the way, the MiniURL for this post is: http://wp.me/pnD0m-6w

John Savageau, Long Beach

About johnsavageau
Another telecom junkie who has been bouncing around the international communications community for most of the past 35 years.

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