Beware the URL shortener

URL shorteners such as Bitly, Ow.ly and Is.gd are a way of life on social media. The advantages are clear: reduced character counts and useful statistics. But these services come with two major tradeoffs.

What would happen if every link you ever shared suddenly stopped working? While this scenario may seem farfetched, it isn’t. URL shorteners offer some services for free by subsidizing them with other paid offerings. At any point, these companies could change their models, be acquired and shut down or simply go out of business, taking your links with them.

Risk and control

You’re also beholden to the Libyan government, which controls all domains ending in .ly. It could decide at any moment it wants to take all .ly domains back to only be used by sites hosted in Libya or declare services such as Bitly noncompliant with its terms of service.

What’s your recourse? Nothing. Your links will be dead or compromised, and even if you knew where they linked to, you couldn’t edit all of them.

SEO

Links are the currency of Search Engine Optimization. To oversimplify, a higher quantity and quality of links to your site puts your site in a more authoritative position with the search engines. URL shorteners redirect traffic from their servers to the URL you specify. Since search engines can’t be 100 percent certain that the destination of the redirect won’t change in the future, they discount the value of shortened links over direct links. How much? We don’t know, but Google and Bing have both shared that this slight penalty exists, indicating you could get a small boost in your SEO if you don’t shorten your links.

The solution

I recommend hosting your own URL shortener. Free software, such as YOURLS (yourls.org), makes it easy to host your own shortened URLs using a domain name and a server you control. YOURLS even has a WordPress plugin, making hosting your own URL shortener even easier.

Regarding SEO, your best bet is to limit URL shortening to instances in which you need to use it. For example, if you are just linking text and the actual web address isn’t visible on the screen, use the full web address.

Steve Robinson is founder and marketing measurement consultant with Brilliant Metrics LLC in Shorewood.

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