The History of Bit.ly and Goo.gl

A Tale of Two URL Shorteners

Bitly Google

Did you know that these two well-known companies had a bit of a showdown in the early days?

A ‘face off’ called by the press.

I mean, when Bitly launched, Google was already dominating.

What could the king of online search possibly want with a little URL Shortener?

Is the service of URL Shortening that important? (We sure think so)

Let’s go back to 1998.

UPDATE – April 24, 2018: Please note that Google has announced the wind-down of its Goo.gl URL shortening service. Current users can continue to use the service until March 2019 when it will be discontinued.

Google (or shall I say BackRub): From Research Project to World Domination.

Google began in 1996 as a research project by Larry Page and Sergey Brin,two Ph.D. students at Stanford University, California.

At that stage, conventional search engines ranked web results by counting how many times the search terms appeared on the page. These two theorized a better system that would instead analyze the relationships between websites.

They called this new technology PageRank, which determined a website’s relevance by the number of pages, and the importance of those pages, that linked back to the original site.

Google PageRank Ranking Algorithm
Credit: Google’s ranking approach in 2011

The founders had originally nicknamed their new search engine project “BackRub”, because the system checked backlinks to estimate the importance of a site. 

Oh yes, you heard me correctly.
Today’s kingpin of the online search was originally named BackRub.

BackRub Google
Credit: The beginning of Google.

Eventually, they changed the name to Google, originating from a misspelling of the word ‘googol‘, the number one followed by one hundred zeros, which was picked to signify that the search engine was intended to provide large quantities of information.

From its inception, Google grew fast.

Some of its successes included:

  • 1997: Google officially launches.
  • 1999: the company moves to its offices to Palo Alto, California, which is still home to several prominent Silicon Valley technology start-ups.
  • 2000: Google begins selling advertisements associated with search keywords.
  • 2000: Google starts off the new millennium as the largest search engine in the world.
  • 2001: Google receives a patent for its PageRank mechanism.
  • 2001: Google launches it’s Image Search
  • 2002: The Google Search Engine had become so popular that the word ‘Google’ was already being referred to as a transitive verb – referring to ‘searching for information on the World Wide Web, regardless of which search engine was being used’. The American Dialect Society chooses it as the ‘most useful word of 2002’.
  • 2003: Google, having already outgrown two other locations, it leases an office complex in Mountain View, California. Three years later, buying the property from SGI for $319 million, transforming it into what is now known as the famous Googleplex.
Spinutech Googleplex Visit
Credit: Googleplex – Google Headquarters today
  • 2004: Google launches Gmail
  • 2006: The word ‘Google‘ is officially added to the Oxford English Dictionary, and to the eleventh edition of the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary in July 2006.
  • 2007: Google launches it’s Universal Search, bringing in things like images, news stories and videos.
  • 2008: Google launches Google Suggest, making searching faster and helping people figuring out what to actually type.
  • 2009: Google Search Options is launched, allowing searchers to quickly narrow down results to get to the information they’re actually looking for faster and more efficiently than before.

Apart from all of its other successes, having your brand name officially inserted into the dictionary as a verb actually stands out the most for me.

If that isn’t a sign of serious brand success, I’m not sure what is.

Google Dictionary Oxford
Credit: Google becomes a verb.

The story of Google is worthy of its own blog post, so let’s not get side-tracked.

Long story short, Google was a raging success.

Starting out as a research company, Google is now the most widely used search engine in the world, wracking in about 2 Trillion search queries per year.

Fortune 500 top-dog, generating enormous profits and loved by most, dare I say all.

Google Valuable Company
Credit: One of the most valuable companies in the world: Google in 2015

So, what would they want with little Bit.ly a few years down the line?

After all, Google was already dominating at the time of Bitly’s launch.

Would it really want to claim the space of a little URL Shortening service that badly?

The new kid on the block: Bit.ly makes its mark.

In February 2008, Bitly launches.

Bitly URL Shortener
Credit

URL Shorteners have their own interesting story to tell. If you’ve got an extra 10 min, read more about the History of URL Shorteners.

At the time of Bitly’s launch, TinyURL was dominating the market. Being Twitters auto URL Shortener has propelled its growth and by the time Bitly launched, TinyURL was already getting an impressive 1 Billion hits a month.

But, the biggest difference between Bitly and TinyURL, was their plans for the future.

While Bitly was launching with the goal of becoming a successful ever-growing platform, TinyURL had other ideas.

In an interesting article by the Star Tribune, they talk about how:

Kevin Gilbertson, the founder of TinyURL, could easily make $1 million a month. He chooses not to. That’s not to say the 28-year-old Blaine Web developer isn’t doing well since his creation, TinyURL.com, took off in 2002. Recently named one of the 50 best websites by Time magazine, TinyURL does a simple task: It allows you to turn a long, unwieldy Web address into something you can remember. Something, well, tiny.

The site makes URLs tiny at a rate of about 1 billion per month. Which is where the $1 million comes in. Gilbertson could make about that much if he chose to attach a pop-up advertisement on each URL. But he won’t, on principle. “It’s kind of, ‘Here’s a pop-up, look at me,'” Gilbertson said. “That’s not what I want to see. It’s all about getting the person to the place.” That’s about as expansive as the Web tinkerer and entrepreneur gets. He saves most of his words for his other pursuit — unicycling. Everything about him is somewhat abbreviated: short sentences, few keystrokes, one wheel.

But, nonetheless, he might not have created TinyURL if it weren’t for his passion for unicycling. Being that he created it so that he’d be able to convert postings on unicycling newsgroups into Web pages, without having to deal with long, cumbersome URLs.

Either way, Bitly must’ve seen an opportunity here, and went for it.

Since it Bitly’s launch, over the next 10 years, it moved fast.

A key factor that propelled it’s growth early on, was Twitters decision to start using Bitly instead of TinyURL as it’s auto URL Shortener.

No more than a day or two after Twitter switched over to Bitly as its default link shortener, Bitly becomes the most popular URL shortening service around.

URL Shortener Marketshare

In a TechCrunch article posted on 7 May 2009, it stated:

Well, that was fast. No more than a day or two after Twitter switched over to bit.ly as its default link shortener (from TinyURL), bit.ly is now the most popular URL shortening service. According to statistics published by Tweetmeme, bit.ly now accounts for 46 percent of all the short URLs on Twitter over the past 24 hours, while TinyURL’s share is down to 43 percent. Just over a month ago, TinyURL had an overwhelming 75 percent share to bit.ly’s 13 percent share. According to Tweetmeme, bit.ly overtook TinyURL sometime last night.

Some of Bitly’s achievements over the years include:

  • 2008: Bitly officially launches.
  • 2010: Launches Branded Domains, giving brands the ability to control their brand and capture their data by replacing the bit.ly in their Bitlinks.
  • 2010: Launches Brand Tools (formerly known as Bitly Enterprise).
  • 2011: Bitly Brand Tools acquires it’s 100th customer.
  • 2012: A fast-paced growing company, Bitly moves out of the Betaworks workspace and opens a new office in Union Square, NYC.
  • 2012: The Bitly mascot, Chauncey McPufferson, is born.
  • 2013: Bitly names Mark Josephson, previously of Outside.In, AOL and About.com, as CEO.
  • 2014: Bitly launches the Bitly Certified Partner Program, designed to recognize and support the best companies that integrate Bitly data and functionality into their platforms.
  • 2015: Bitly launches Mobile Deep Linking to help marketers build a seamless user experience across devices and get their audiences to the right place every time no matter which device they are on.

URL Bitly

Of course, there were ups and downs along the way. But by 2015, Bitly managed to reach profitability for the first time ever, making the future look bright.

Google and Bitly: The Fast Followers.

Some talk about the First Mover Advantage: the advantage gained by the initial (“first-moving”) significant occupant of a market segment. It may also be referred to as Technological Leadership.

It’s an interesting concept, as, while you certainly have the First Movers, you also have the Fast Followers.

The First Movers are the guys who start off, they are the pioneers.

The Fast Followers are the guys who come onto the scene later one. The ones who recognise their advantage of being able to use pioneers’ experiences to learn about consumer tastes, new designs and manufacturing techniques, and the potential size of a market. They can also learn from their mistakes.

Don’t get my wrong, some pioneers keep their thrones, but it is very often the Latecomers who learn from the founders, and, by doing it better, they rise to the top.

A great article by Forbes talks about this.

  • How Apple didn’t invent the first personal, the mobile phone, the iPod (there were already MP3 players) or the tablet computer.
  • Google definitely wasn’t the first web-based search engine.
  • Microsoft wasn’t the first PC operating system, the first word processor, or the first spreadsheet.

They just did it better.

Of course, getting in early has its own set of advantages. Whether you’re first or fifth on the scene, being there in the early years allows you to build your reputation in the minds of your consumers. A longterm bond that can be tough for newbies to break.

Bitly can also be called a Fast Follower.

TinyURL was the first URL Shortener, and had been dominating since it’s launch in 2002. By, as we’ve read above, after Bitly’s launch in February 2008, it took as little as 18 months for it to take over TinyURL, and replace it as Twitter’s auto URL Shortener.

This Fast Follower was not messing around.

So Bitly and Google most certainly had something in common.

Google kicking the Alta Vistas out of the way.

Google King of the Search
Captain: Google King of the Search (2010)

Bitly kicking the TinyURLs out of the way.

Bit-ly-Dominates-the-Top-10-Domains-on-Twitter
Captain: Bitly dominates (2010)

Move aside, we’re coming through.

So, what happened between these two Fast Followers in the URL Shortener space?

Link Shorteners

Well, it all began in 2009.

Google launches it’s very own URL Shortener. Bitly, you better watch out.

On the 14th December 2009, Google challenged Bitly by announcing Goo.gl – it’s very own URL Shortener:

This morning, we launched updated versions of the Google Toolbar and FeedBurner that offer a new URL shortening service from Google called the Google URL Shortener. We mentioned our URL shortener as a feature in both announcements, so we wanted to say a little more about how this product works and why we’re offering it.Google Googl URL Shortener

Google’s new offering was initially focused on it’s Google Toolbar users and those using its Feedburner service would want.

On Google’s blog it highlighted it’s benefits:

Google URL shortener is not a stand-alone service; you can’t use it to shorten links directly. Currently, Google URL Shortener is only available from the Google Toolbar and FeedBurner. If the service proves useful, we may eventually make it available for a wider audience in the future.

We’re excited about enabling this functionality — try it for Toolbar and FeedBurner!

  • Stability: Google’s scalable, multi-datacenter infrastructure provides great uptime and a reliable service to our users.
  • Security: As we do with web search, shortened URLs are automatically checked to detect sites that may be malicious and warn users when the short URL resolves to such sites.
  • Speed: At Google we like fast products and we’ve worked hard to ensure this service is quick. We’ll continue to iterate and improve the speed of Google Url Shortener.

Google wasn’t offering anything particularly new to the URL Shortening industry. It was nonetheless, the giant of the internet, and it was venturing into new territory to claim a spot.

UPDATE – April 24, 2018: Last month, Google announced that it would wind down its URL shortening service. Current users can continue to use the service until March 2019 when it will be discontinued – ten years after it was first set up.

A Face Off or Simply Healthy Competition?

Of course, all media love a good story.

And with the giant of the internet launching their URL Shortener, and becoming a direct competitor of Bitly, headings like ‘Faceoff: Goo.gl vs. Bit.ly‘ and ‘Goo.gl Challenges Bit.ly as King of the Short‘ started popping up.

Media Attention

How about this headline:

TechCrunch 2009

With stories like these, one never really knows what is actually going on.

I could imagine that Google, being the pioneering spirit it is, wasn’t launching a URL Shortener for fun. I’d take an educated guess, and suggest that it was out for a big piece of the pie.

The URL Shortening Industry starts become competitive.

There was a lot happening in the URL Shortening industry in 2009.

WordPress had launched it’s wp.meHootsuite had launched it’s ow.ly. And, of course, Google had unveiled it’s goo.gl and youtu.be. And that’s only looking at the bigger players, not the many many others.

Around that time, Facebook and Twitter were also experimenting with using their own URL Shorteners. Big news.

So even though it may of seemed that Google was out to get Bitly, there was seemingly an opportunity in this emerging market.

After the launch, and all the media attention that came with it, Search Engine Land chatted to the head of Google’s web spam team, Matt Cutts, about some of the reasons behind the new service.

This is what Matt had to say:

Well, the service began as a “20% time” project by engineers in his group, time engineers at Google are allowed to spend working on whatever they’d like. So Cutts is knowledgeable about the project and serving as one of the de facto spokespeople for it.

If people are that excited about it, we figured why not open it up to the world,” Cutts said, explaining that about 70,000 people were making use of an extension in the Chrome browser to shorten URLs. Cutts also reiterated the safe, speedy and secure mantra of the official blog post.

Search Engine Land then asked the big question: And is it taking aim at any particular product? Matt repsonded:

By just showing up at the table and providing a really nice service, you can motivate everyone to improve in the space,” he said. “We definitely don’t want to kill anyone.”

Bitly strikes back.
Google, we’re ready for you.

Bit.ly didn’t wait very long before striking back at mighty Google.
One day, in fact.

The day after the Goo.gl launch, on the 15th December 2009, Bitly announced it’s new Pro URL Shortening Service, coming soon. This pro version would include ‘private label’ tracking, meaning that you’d be able to create custom URLs with your own unique domain, and track them.

Bitly would by creating custom URLs for a number of web sites and publishers, including The New York TimesThe Huffington Post, The Wall Street Journal and The Onion. And it would begin rolling these out that very night, continuing to deploy over the next several days.

New York Times Bitly URL Shortener
Credit: The Times and Bit.ly Roll Out ‘nyti.ms’ Short Links

This new private label pro solution aimed to boost analytics and offered an elevated dashboard interface with real-time stats and the country of origin clicks.

The was a big move of Bitly, a mere day after the Goo.gl launch.

The New York Times interviewed John Borthwick, chief executive of Betaworks Studios on the day of Google’s launch. John said:

How we share information on the Web is rapidly changing. Bit.ly aspires to be the most open and scaled platform for sharing available.

Bitly needed to react quickly to Google’s launch, so I’m guessing they had to get creative and announce this new offering a little earlier than expected.

But hey, a little healthy competition never hurt anyone right?

Perhaps the launch of Goo.gl was the healthy competition Bitly needed to push that little bit harder, in a now highly competitive industry.

Bitly officially launches it’s Custom Domains.

In February 2010, Bitly officially releases their Pro Edition of their service, a ‘white-label” edition of the public service. Now, a short URL could now be replaced by one with a custom domain.

A link like:
http://bit.ly/bHRDfP

Could become:
http://brand.me/bHRDfP.

Even though the URL Slug was still generic, this was a big improvement.

Bitly Pro Dashboard
Credit

As well as the ability to utilise a custom domain, the service bitly.Pro provided a dashboard view, allowing it’s users to view analytics on all the links they’d shared from their custom domain.

Google makes Goo.gl available to the public, as a Strong Contender.

In September 2010, Google’s URL shortener opens to the public, with a standalone site.

Google URL Shortener
Credit

Having launched Goo.gl the year before, and now available to be used for any links on the web, it was definitely establishing itself one of Bitly’s main competitors.

Google was on a mission, promising again that the shortener was the “stablest, most secure, and fastest URL shortener on the web.”

From their blog they stated:

There are many shorteners out there with great features, so some people may wonder whether the world really needs yet another. As we said late last year, we built goo.gl with a focus on quality. With goo.gl, every time you shorten a URL, you know it will work, it will work fast, and it will keep working. You also know that when you click a goo.gl shortened URL, you’re protected against malware, phishing and spam using the same industry-leading technology we use in search and other products. Since our initial release, we’ve continued to invest in the core quality of the service:

  • Stability: We’ve had near 100% uptime since our initial launch, and we’ve worked behind the scenes to make goo.gl even stabler and more robust.
  • Security: We’ve added automatic spam detection based on the same type of filtering technology we use in Gmail.
  • Speed: We’ve more than doubled our speed in just over nine months.

And so, is Goo.gl really the fastest URL Shortener, as it claims? Data doesn’t lie.

Google had now made Goo.gl available to everyone, giving it its own website, similar to Bit.ly’s.

Let the games begin.

Google had also made the bold statement: “… we want it to be the stablest, most secure, and fastest URL shortener on the web.”

And so, Pingdom, a service that tracks the uptime, downtime, and performance of websites, did a test.

For a couple of weeks, after Goo.gl became available to everyone, Pingdom monitored its performance and reliability together with several other URL shortening services, including Bit.ly and TinyURL.

You can read the full Pingdom results article here, but this is the summary (with focus on Goo.gl and Bit.ly):

  • Speed: Goo.gl was almost 3x faster than Bit.ly overall.
  • Reliability: Both Bit.ly and Goo.gl delivered perfect availability.

Pingdom Data

Credit: Above shows the extra time a URL shortener adds when accessing a site. The list is sorted so that the fastest total average it at the top, the slowest at the bottom.
Pingdom Reliability Results
Credit: Pingdom Reliability Results

Pingdom finished off by saying:

While it’s very important to note that, speed isn’t necessarily everything. Many use URL shorteners for other features or reasons, so this report is by no means saying that Goo.gl is the best URL shortener out there, just that it’s the fastest of the ones we tested. Google has delivered on its promise.

Google had, in fact, delivered on it’s promise.

Another day, Another URL Shortener?

From 2011 until today, many URL Shorteners have made their way onto the scene. However, there are some clear winners in terms of ranking, with Bit.ly and Goo.gl battling it out on top most of the time.

When choosing a URL shortener or comparing Goo.gl to Bit.ly, it depends largely on your preference and needs.

As you’ll see from the examples below, even though Goo.gl seems to be rising to the top (for some) in terms of analytics, different strokes for different folks.

In 2011, Social Times rated their Top 5 URL Shorteners – Ranking Bit.ly first and Goo.gl second.

In 2012, Crazy Egg rated the URL Shorteners they felt delivered the best Analytics- Ranking Bit.ly first and Goo.gl second.

In 2014, Market Me rated their Top 5 URL Shorteners available – Ranking Goo.gl first and Bit.ly second.

In 2016, Shout Me Loud rated their Top URL Shortener Sites they feel we should be using for shrinking long URLs – Ranking Goo.gl first, and Bit.ly only in fourth place.

Reading articles on great platforms like Quora, further emphasizes how these two services each have their own advantages and disadvantages. However, it does seem clear that Goo.gl comes with far more disadvantages than Bit.ly.

  • Goo. gl

Advantages

  1. Analytics
  2. Login is not mandatory
  3. No need for separate login (Google Account)
  4. Powered by The Google
  5. Most reliable URL shortener (http://blog.watchmouse.com/2010/…)

Disadvantages:

  1. Duplicate links
  2. No way to remove from listing
  3. Cannot choose the custom URLs
  4. Cannot use custom domain
  • Bitly:

Advantages:

  1. The only thing they do is Shorten Urls
  2. Reliable shortening
  3. Smarter Analytics
  4. Ability to use own domain
  5. Login is not mandatory
  6. Addons and plugins for popular services and softwares
  7. Privatize the shortened URLs
  8. Brilliant sharing
  9. Ability to bundle a bunch of URLs.
  10. Possbility to Archive the URLs

Disadvantages:

No way to remove shortened links from their DB. We need to  contact the support staff to remove.

After reading the pros and cons, have a look at the comments. You’ll see how each person based their answer in their individual needs, making it impossible to decide absolutely which is the better.

Final Thoughts

As you can see, the URL Shortening story is a big one, even when just looking at Goo.gl and Bit.ly.

It’s come a long way, and still has a long way to go.

In terms of what next, we think it’s going to be focused on customisation, user experience, and, most importantly, having everything in one place.

It’s also going be a lot more focused on Your Unique User. Who are you catering for, and how can you help them the most?

People have different needs, and are getting pick about who they choose to let in.

Do you currently use Goo.gl or Bit.ly as your URL Shorteners?
If so, do you have any particular reasons why?

Do you think you’ll be staying loyal to them or would you ever consider switching over to the new kid on the block who gives you everything in one place at a good price?

I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

Sian Lloyd
Marketing Specialist at Rebrandly. A marketer with a strong creative and branding background. With a passion for healthy branding, she focuses on creating useful and memorable experiences for customers.