How To Scare Your Readers, Dilute Your Brand & Squander Link Equity with Tiny URLs

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Tiny URLs are convenient and very effective at doing exactly what they’re designed to do. They turn a long and/or ugly URL into something short-and-sweet. This gets around URL length limitations on some websites; and they do just look neater sometimes.

There are many services to provide these shortened URLs — tiny.cc, shorturl.com, and, of course, the tinyurl.com.  Unfortunately, all of them also present us with 3 undesirable side-effects:

1. Scaring Readers

Most of us have visited at least a few URLs we wish we hadn’t. Tiny URLs provide an easy way to hide the destination URL and hide intent. After all, tinyurl.com/asdfg looks a lot more innocuous than the famous (now defunct) shock website, goatse.cx. Some people are afraid to click these Tiny URLs at work for this reason alone. It only needs to happen to someone once before he or she feels some trepidation. The Tiny URL is simply 302-redirected to the target … whatever that may be.

To address this, TinyURL.com and some of its cousins now provide a feature that previews the target of the tiny URLs; though it may be unwise to depend on users knowing about or actually doing so. For example, http://preview.tinyurl.com/bzms8d shows the final destination of http://tinyurl.com/bzms8d, which in this case leads to http://www.seoegghead.com/software/wordpress-tiny-urls.seo. We’ll talk about that destination more in a moment.

Even worse, some Windows anti-virus packages warn that some Tiny URL service domains are potentially dangerous, in part because of even more nefarious links that Tiny URL services may obscure — fraud, phishing, pornography, etc.

Being associated with any of these activities can’t be good.

2. Diluting Your Brand

Take one look at that aforementioned URL, “http://tinyurl.com/bzms8d.” Does that say anything about the company or brand that it cites? No — just tinyurl.com.  In fact, the ubiquity of tinyurl.com is almost certainly what made it so famous.  Unless you’re interested in promoting a branding campaign for them, it is diluting your brand — and at worst creating an undesirable association between your company and, say, goatse.cx.

3. Squandering Link Equity

Inevitably, Tiny URLs will also squander at least some link-equity. The URLs do expire for some of the services.  Barring that, there was some downtime for TinyURL.com in 2007 that made Twitter users extremely queasy. And on top of that, while most will link to the link post-302-redirection, we’ve observed both in the wild; one might just end up with even more 302-redirected TinyURLs. Not capturing as much link equity as possible is, of course, a cardinal sin for any search engine marketer.

So the Tiny URLs them may be great, but not the external Tiny URL services. Knowing all the above, we certainly shouldn’t be using these services for links that we post ourselves. No problem. We can roll our own Tiny URLs on our own domain.  Doing so will assuage user-concern and prevent false alarms, promote your brand, and capture more link equity over time.

How To Roll Your Own

Of course our domain may not be quite as short, but the resulting URLs will still be very short; and they won’t suffer from any of the problems we’ve discussed.  Here are a few how-tos:

for any Apache website:

You may use Mod_Rewrite to set up Tiny URLs via the .htaccess file on your web server.  For example,

RewriteEngine On
RewriteRule ^1.tiny$ /blog/seo/how-to-please-google-and-your-girlfriend.html [R=301,L]
RewriteRule ^2.tiny$ /blog/seo/how-to-set-goals-and-expectations-reasonably.html [R=301,L]
… etc.

So http://yourdom.com/1.tiny and http://yourdom.com/2.tiny would be your Tiny URLs.

or for WordPress:

We wrote a proof-of-concept plugin for WordPress called WordPress TinyURLs. It does the same as the above, but with complete automation for the WordPress blogging platform.  It also posts the Tiny URLs for others to use to post, in the hopes that they would use those instead of Tiny URL services in the first place. For example, http://seoegghead.com/blog/i.tiny is one of the plugin’s URLs for our company website.

Doing the above should contribute positively over time to your branding and link-building efforts. And that’s your duty as search marketer, right? Go get started.

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20 Comments

  1. Cybernaut SEO

    I have to say; you made some grate points and caused me to rethink my practice of using URL shorteners! However, I though over your points and felt I had to write a post about the positive aspects of using Using CLigs for link building. Let me know what you think and thanks for this insight.

  2. I've seen search marketers use Cligs.  Cligs does in fact use 301s, and they offer some cool analytics features.  However: It does not solve nearly all of the above; and the 301s are still external. I don't see them as a real solution. Maybe I should have mentioned it, but – Cligs will still scare readers, 1. Cligs will still dilute your brand, 2. It may help a bit on 3. However, I'd still prefer a permanent redirect from myself.  Maybe use both?

  3. Cybernaut SEO

    Don't put all your eggs in one basket. That sounds like a good compromise! Only use a Clig for links you can afford to loose if the site ever tanks. Thanks for reading the post.

  4. People 'afraid' of shortened url's arent worth having as readers. Live a little, man!

  5. That's like saying ... People 'afraid' scrollbars aren't worth having as customers. So, by that logic, we should also not bother to put buy buttons above the fold, right? Our goal as marketers is the cater to the lowest common denominator to generate as many possible leads/conversions as humanly possible. They should not have to 'scroll.' FYI, Panera Bread in the northeast blocks tinyurls for fear of liabilities associated with phishing. I'm sure they're not the only ones.

  6. I defintely don't like tinyurls, I want to see the destination in the status bar or on the page. I know what you see in the status bar isn't always the final destination, but it usually is, and with tinyurls it isn't, 100% of the time.

  7. tinyurls are only for use in emails, where the longer url may wrap and not be readily clickable. I suppose twitter et al is another usage. Anyone who uses it on their site is, well, a fool - there is no reason to do so (beyond examples like this article, of course). I like your suggestion of onsite tinyurls :) Wouldn't the raw wordpress url be the same thing built in? I mean http://www.domain.com/blog/?p=27 , where p is the post id? I think wordpress 301s to the permalink as a built in nowadays, but if not there are seo plugins that allow it.

  8. Lea, Some good points. You can use the ?p=X links on newer versions of WordPress without fear of 2 copies getting indexed. That is a problem on older versions, though (without a plugin like you cite). My plugin also posts the tinylink for easy CTRL-C'ing, but that's just a nicety, not critical. I didn't document it, but so long as you're careful, it also lets you specify custom URLs, i.e. /blog/foo-bar.tiny. So, yeah, the dynamic URLs are just fine. You could even modify your template to have an input box after it citing the dynamic URL. That would work just fine! :) Regards, Jaimie.

  9. I had that same paranoia last year, and decided to register a separate domain and do custom URLs for my blog. So "www.usereffect.com" became "userfx.us" (with numeric IDs in place of post titles) for my blog entries. On the one hand, I like the idea of the trust factor - visitors know that those short URLs will only go to my blog. On the other hand, most people don't recognize the new URL or necessarily equate it with my site, so I'm not sure I really gained anything.

  10. Why not just do usereffect.com/1? Your domain is longer, but since your redirect namespace is smaller (you don't have millions of URLs after all), you make it back. usereffect.com/1 vs. tinyurl.com/bzms8d I don't see a problem with either ...

  11. @Jaimie - The truth? Because the coder in me made the whole experiment more complicated than it needed to be :) I decided registering a new, shorter name would be cool, when it was probably completely unnecessary.

  12. Couldn't agree more: URL shorteners have their place but only in a very limited sense, e.g. on Twitter plus, sometimes, in e-mail. They may also help protect affiliate links from the more clueless, but that's about where it ends. Your mod_rewrite solution (exactly what we've been doing for years ourselves) is definitely the best choice to retain your incoming link love. Good article, keep it up! :)

  13. Al

    shortened urls are fine when communicating on twitter, and in emails to a dedicated following. You get in trouble with them when you are first communicating with someone as an unknown, etc. They have their place as does everything else. Regarding the benefit of analytics, you get that when you do custom url re-directs from your htaccess file as well. Why not control the flow and keep the data to yourself?

  14. Some great opinions here! I agree that you should only use URL shorteners when posting on a site, or email, that has character restrictions. I also follow another rule. When I'm linking to other people's content I use is.gd, because I don't care about link equity and analytics. Plus my followers on twitter should trust that I'm not going to post shady links. When I'm linking to my content I either use the internal (on-site) URL shortener described above, or good old fashioned anchor text. A lot of times keywords are shorter and more click friendly anyway. Follow me on twitter . . .

  15. Jaimie -- Your comments about our goal as marketers are right on target. Anytime we, as marketers, begin making sweeping, dismissive statements about audiences (if a visitor is too dumb ... too slow ... too afraid ... too whatever, they can just click off) is the time we need to step back and assess who the target audience really is what what they need in a website. A lot of times they need exactly what we're dismissing.

  16. The plugin you recommend has a few problems witht he install procedure. First the download link downloads an html page not a plugin. Second trying to copy the php from the original page is not possible because a lot of the code is missing. I managed to figure it out, but it could have been made a lot easier if they'd just published the pho code for copying or made a proper download and plugin set up.

  17. The download link is a link to the page from which you download -- not the actual file. Slight usability issue, I'll fix that by making it say "get plugin." You must have right-clicked and assumed it was targeting the file. Honestly, I made it a 2 stop process with a form button that so people are less likely to link the file directly :) That would be bad from a marketing perspective, and also prevent me from keeping major versions. The code renders fine for me as well. Not sure what the problem is there ....

  18. Good Article to think about. I will also agree that this tool is just for microblogging or email someone using this sort of method somewhere else has little idea what SEO is about. Congratulations for these interesting posts

  19. I myself don't like tiny URL and I don't prefer redirecting the URL because it causes the loss of some traffic and backlinks.

  20. I want to see the destination in the status bar or on the page