How the URL shortener was born and what the future has in store
The history of URL shorteners, really? Really.
Why are URL shorteners so important anyway?
Well, for one, you’re already using URLs almost every single day.
They’ve become an integral means of communication in the digital age.
There are over 3.7 billion global internet users, over 1 million websites created, and over 100 million (and growing) emails sent every day:
All these numbers are rising every second. The online world is alive, and it’s fascinating to watch:
URLs therefore have a big role to play in this digital story.
They are the connectors of the web. The tool we use to communicate with online.
URLs have come a long way since their inception over 20 years ago. Especially with the creation of the URL Shortener, which has come to play an important part in retaining the importance and usefulness of the URL in our ever-evolving digital landscape.
URL Shorteners have moved from simply being a tool to shorten your link, to an integral tracking tool used to refine marketing initiatives and drive brand growth.
So how did we get to this point?
Let’s start from the beginning.
What is a URL?
A URL stands for Uniform Resource Locator and was coined in 1994 by Tim Berners-Lee, known as the inventor of the World Wide Web – A pretty big claim to fame I’d say.
Tim had big dreams about the WWW and it’s interesting to take note of and compare it to what is happening today:
The dream behind the Web is of a common information space in which we communicate by sharing information. Its universality is essential: the fact that a hypertext link can point to anything, be it personal, local or global, be it draft or highly polished. There was a second part of the dream, too, dependent on the Web being so generally used that it became a realistic mirror (or in fact the primary embodiment) of the ways in which we work and play and socialize. That was that once the state of our interactions was on line, we could then use computers to help us analyze it, make sense of what we are doing, where we individually fit in, and how we can better work together.
Keeping it simple though, a URL is basically a web address.
But, it has also become one of our most valuable online sharing tools.
The Evolution of the URL
Traditionally a URL could look something like this: http://developers.jollypad.com/fb/index.php?dmmy=1&fb_sig_in_iframe=1&fb_sig_iframe_key=8e296a067a37563370ded05f5a3bf3ec&fb_sig_locale=bg_BG&fb_sig_in_new_facebook=1&fb_sig_time=1282749119.128&fb_sig_added=1&fb_sig_profile_update_time=1229862039&fb_sig_expires=1282755600&fb_sig_user=761405628&fb_sig_session_key=2.IuyNqrcLQaqPhjzhFiCARg__.3600.1282755600-761405628
Okay sure, not all of them were this long, I’m just emphasizing that back in the day this was fine, no one would’ve thought anything of it.
Right now though, looking at this URL gives me sudden anxiety.
I get an instant itch, I want to fix it.
I mean, how about easily replacing this frighteningly long link with something like this instead: http://sians.link/jollypad-crazy-long-link
Try it out, it goes to the same URL.
It’s pretty neat right?
Of course, this may not impress you at all, being that it’s 2016.
But URL Shortening has come a very long way, and years ago this little trick was a huge hit.
The Entire History of URL Shorteners Infographic
In case you don’t want the full story, we created a little infographic here to give you a breakdown of what’s been quietly going on over the last 20+ years:
Easily Share this Image On Your Site:
The Beginning of the URL Shortener
So where did this URL shortening all begin?
From the launch of the world wide web in 1991, the digital world grew quickly.
People were using the internet more and more, getting comfortable in this virtual space. And as digital users evolved over time, the URL evolved along with it.
One particular user, a 24-year-old American web developer, was about to start something big.
All this user wanted to do, was to be able to convert postings on unicycling newsgroups into Web pages, without having to deal with long, cumbersome URLs. He had run into this problem, and just wanted to make his life easier with shorter ones.
Gilby didn’t have any particularly big plans for TinyURL either. He just wanted to solve this problem, and improve his user experience. I’m almost certain that he had no idea that he was kicking off the soon-to-be rapidly evolving industry of URL shortening.
“It’s a good, simple idea and it’s useful for a lot of people,” he said in a interview with Wired in 2004.
So true Gilby, so true.
Gilby Launches a Chain Reaction of URL Shorteners
With any truly innovative idea, the moment you hear it, you think “Why didn’t I think of it?”
That’s how you identify true innovation, when the idea sounds like the perfect and logical progression of something.
Such a great idea like this, in this new digital age, obviously caught on like wildfire.
The popularity of TinyURLs influenced the creation of at least 100 similar websites. Some of the more prominent ones included MakeAShorterLink.com, SnipURL.com and Shorl.com.
As the web developed, URLs were also becoming longer, so these URL Shorteners were becoming really useful.
For instance, when sending an email, very long links ran the risk of wrapping in the email – This would happen when a URL was too long to fit into a single line in the email message, and a line break would automatically be inserted somewhere within the URL. This would result in an error message when the recipient tried to click on it. Not exactly an ideal situation, one that a URL Shortener could fix very easily.
However, URL Shorteners also came with their problems. When they shortened the links, the end result would mask the actual domain name of the
site containing the information content, being that it was made up of random letters and numbers. This affected the link trust, as you could not longer tell the origin of the information, and therefore the reliability of it. You’d start to wonder if you should even click on it at all.
Of course, in your email, you could include a reference line before the link, but still, this masking of the destination URL raised a valid concern.
And of course, along came the spam emailers, who wanted to mask the full URL and drive people to other destinations unwillingly. These spammers would try all sorts of techniques to mask URLs online, in the years to come.
As the world wide web developed rapidly, URL Shorteners needed to adapt and evolve quickly in various ways, with the good and bad. Only the strongest would survive.
The Blue Bird Makes the URL Shortener Even More Important.
Especially with the birth of Twitter in July 2006 with its famous 140 character tweet: URL shortening started to become more than just a nice-to-have, it was a necessity.
This 140 character limit made sharing links tricky.
How were you supposed to tweet about that incredible YouTube video when it’s URL link alone was 43 characters?
Or this insightful Hubspot article on blogging that you’ve just read that comes to 148 characters. Good luck tweeting that great content piece to your followers.
Sharing links was also not just about the URL. It was about the person sharing thoughts and opinions on the link.
Why were they sharing it?
What did they find so interesting about it?
To allow people to personalize their Tweets along with the links, URL Shorteners had not only become necessary, they were becoming popular.
Luckily, since then, Twitter has, in fact, made all URLs 23 characters. But that comes later in the URL shortening journey, so bear with me.
And so, to make its users lives a little easier, Twitter automatically translated long URLs using TinyURL.
URL Shorteners Becomes an Everyday Tool for Online Socialites, Allowing Them to Easily Share Shortened Links on a Plethora of Social Media Platforms.
As more and more social media platforms enter the market, online sharing starts to become a way of life.
Some of the more noteworthy launches of social platforms are:
- LinkedIn in 2003
- MySpace, Flickr and Facebook in 2004
- YouTube in 2005
- Twitter in 2006
- Tumblr in 2007
- Instagram in 2010
With many others in between.
People of all ages were exploring this new virtual reality, creating profiles, peeking into other people’s lives, commenting, likes, and engaging in different ways.
The social media story is a big story for a separate post, but it definitely contributed to the URL Shorteners evolution.
One significant contribution to this social media revolution was Facebook’s ever-present ‘Like’ button, breaking free from the bounds of its site and appearing all over the Internet. Now you could ‘like’ or ‘tweet’ almost anything, even when you weren’t actually on Facebook or Twitter.
The power of social networking was being realized, and more URLs were being shared than ever before.
Social media as a whole is a massively expanding industry that has fueled the growth of the URL shortener industry alongside it.
Remember, only 20 years ago, people weren’t sharing articles, creating blog posts, or creating live videos at nearly the frequency they are today.
Over time, social media platforms have trained their users to create and share content regularly, as this is what fuels revenue for each social network.
Therefore the advent of social media and the changing mindset of the user have played integral roles in shaping the URL shortening industry.
The Rise of Bitly Daring to Challenge ‘The King of the Short’
TinyURL was doing well and gaining traction, especially being used by Twitter.
That was, until, Bitly came along.
Bitly saw this opportunity and took it, launching in February 2008.
Along with the basic URL Shortening service, it also offered useful analytics on link clicks. This was something TinyURL was not doing, and this was how Bitly could really stand out, offering more value.
And in 2009, Twitter ‘silently’ replaced TinyURL as its default URL shortening service with Bitly, it’s competing service.
This accelerated Bitly’s growth dramatically.
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.
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.
Of course, this becomes a bit of a hot topic for the media with headlines popping up like ‘URL Shortening Wars: Twitter Ditches TinyURL For Bit.ly‘.
I do find myself wondering if Gilby, the unicyclist (and creator of TinyURL) really minded? TinyURL had gained so much exposure by then and was still considered to be one of the most widely used URL-shortening services around.
More Competitors Enter The Market Creating a URL Shortener Free for All in 2009
Many other URL shorteners were opening up during this time.
Some of the more notable ones launching:
But all of these competitors used their URL shorteners in conjunction with their core business, which wasn’t actually URL shortening.
In August 2009, TechCrunch released a test done by Royal Pingdom, putting nine of the top URL shortening services through the paces. Overall, Ow.ly and Bit.ly came out on top, with URL shortener Tr.im coming in dead last.
During that time, Trim suddenly announced that it would be shutting down at the end of December, taking all of its shortened links with it. Part of their sombre message to the public included:
There is no way for us to monetize URL shortening – users won’t pay for it – and we just can’t justify further development since Twitter has all but annointed Bit.ly the market winner. There is simply no point for us to continue operating Trim, and pay for its upkeep.
The following week, Trim announces it will be reopening its doors indefinitely,
restoring service to both existing Trim links and the core of the site that lets users
make new ones. The URL shortener assured the public that this fiasco was not a publicity stunt.
There was a lot going on in this ever-emerging URL Shortening industry.
One other notable event in 2009, was the new Goo.gl service’s ‘direct attack on Bit.ly‘. Google’s goal was twofold: to solve an internal problem with people sharing links for things like Google Maps and other Google tools, and to capture market share from Bitly to encourage more users of their web browser, email services, search engine, and all the other stuff they offer.
And while Google moved into the URL shortening space to capture free users, Bitly began partnering with major websites and publishers, including Microsoft‘s Bing search engine, The New York Times, The Huffington Post, The Wall Street Journal, The Onion and others… And Google had (and has) no interest in competing in this space.
Bitly Introduces Branded Short Domains
In January 2010, Bit.ly launched Branded Short Domains, giving brands the ability to control their brand and capture their data by replacing the “Bit.ly” in their Bitlinks with their own custom domains. Although it wasn’t the simplest process, especially for non-techies, it was still an important milestone for the URL shorteners evolution (and a founding principle of our company).
From there, Bitly continued to grow (thanks to exposure and traffic from Twitter of course), and in April 2010, Bit.ly launched it’s Bitly Brand Tools (formerly known as Bitly Enterprise).
Bitly Enterprise Dashboard in 2010:
Now you could shorten, brand and track your links, monitoring them on your multiple channels and start to optimize your marketing efforts with valuable data.
URL Shorteners Start to Move from Being a Useful Link Shortening Tool into a Link Branding Tool.
By 2010, the URL Shortener industry had become competitive.
And, of course, the mighty Twitter needed to step up.
In March 2010, Twitter started experimenting with its own URL shortening service for private messages, using the twt.tl domain, before it purchased the t.co domain.
By June 2011, Twitter announced and started using its own t.co domain for automatic shortening of all URLs posted on its website, only available for links posted to Twitter and not available for general use. All links posted to Twitter would now use a t.co wrapper.
During this time, other URL Shorteners continued to develop. Particularly in terms of offering Custom Branded Links and Advanced Analytics.
In September 2011, Twitter announces 100 million monthly active users, worldwide.
And in December, Twitter would make an important announcement, increasing the length of its t.co wrapped links from 20 to 22 characters if you used a non-https link, and from 21 to 23 characters if you used a https link.
This caused some debate, as, even though it shortened the longer URLs, it was frustrating to have this a set character count when sharing shorter URLs. Either way, this was Twitter’s rule and it was here to stay.
This move by Twitter, although seemingly frustrating to some, ended up propelling the evolution of custom branded links. Now that all URLs posted to Twitter only take up 22 or 23 characters regardless of their actual length, the main point of a URL shorteners is to make the links in your tweets and other social media postings look neater and professional, and to make tracking easier.
Having your own custom short URL offers benefits like consistent branding, brand awareness, and increased link trust.
At this point, URL Shorteners had moved far beyond simple link shortening. They were now becoming valuable marketing tools for brands. Tools that could inevitably elevate your customer engagement online, and ultimately add value to your Brand’s ROI.
ClickMeter Moves in to Offer Tracking And Help Marketers Optimize.
A few of the URL shorteners were offering link tracking at this stage, but there was room for a lot more growth.
In January 2012, ClickMeter opened its doors.
This easy-to-use web-based professional analytic service helped Companies, Agencies, Affiliates, and Publishers to monitor, compare and optimize all their online marketing campaigns in one place. Track conversions, fight click fraud, share results with customers and partners.
Advanced tracking analytics, with the easy-to-use Dashboard where you can monitor all your campaigns in one place.
ClickMeter’s goal is to help marketers take control of their marketing links and maximize their conversion rates, and it was most definitely raising the bar.
Moving with the Times, URL Shorteners Go Mobile.
Then, of course, there was the smartphone.
And this device had been around for a while, since Steve Jobs unveiled the first iPhone in 2007.
Smartphones basically transformed mobile phones into pocket computers with calling capabilities. And since then, the mobile industry has seriously taken off, probably faster than any other industry to date.
A study in 2014 by mobileinsurance.com revealed that the average person spends 90 mins a day on their phone. That figure may not sound like a lot but that amounts up to 23 days a year and 3.9 years of the average person’s life spent staring at their phone screen.
URL Shorteners have managed to keep up the pace of the rapidly evolving tech-digital industry, and it wasn’t stopping here.
And in March 2015, Bitly launches Mobile Deep Linking – Helping marketers build a seamless user experience across all devices, getting their audiences to the right place every time no matter which device they are on.
Branding for the People – User Experience becomes the main focus.
In short, “give me everything, and make it easy.”
Bitly was offering a great service to its users.
A well-designed brand with an easy-to-use interface, offering unbranded or branded short links, with tracking.
However, they were clearly pushing their own brand.
On their platform, using their Bit.ly/xxx is a lot easier than adding your own brand domain. Their process is a little complicated and takes a few steps:
- You have to start by going to another platform to first choose and register your domain name
- Then setting up your Branded Short Name in Bit.ly in their advanced settings using things like DN
- Then verifying your Domain
- And finally having your Branded domain to customize your links.
Sounds like a bit of a hassle to me. Even if you are tech-savvy. (This is why Rebrandly does it in 1 step).
One of the most important features brands have to focus on now is ease-of.use. Your customers’ User Experience trumps all.
Customers are also bombarded with information and options all day. They have what some marketers call a “lizard brain” – Meaning that they’re often very impulsive when making brand decisions. The moment you give them anything that feels complicated, you run the risk of them closing your window of opportunity in a split second.
Even though Bitly has worked hard to make their process as easy as possible, other URL Shorteners like Rebrandly (I had to, there is nobody else :D) have made their service even easier, where you can Register your Domain, Shorten your link, Share it and Track it, all in one place, in a few easy steps.
This is important for maintaining customer engagement, allowing them to do everything from one place, without asking them for too much in return.
I want it all, and I want it now.
And it doesn’t stop there for the hardworking URL Shortener.
Today, people are also demanding that all of their tools work across all devices and integrate with all other tools seamlessly.
The modern URL shortener is nothing without a mobile app, a desktop extension, and integrations into all key social media tools and platforms.
The URL shortener of 2016 has come a long way, but there are many places still left to explore. The current focus in the industry seems to be:
- Valuable and Detailed Tracking
- User Experience
But not too far down the road, you might see things like:
- Auto-suggested URL slugs
- Automatically created shortlinks with custom UTM tracking parameters, without even needing to use a URL builder
- Easy to build attribution models and “link collaboration” that can track individual users across multiple clicks.
- Multi-generational social media link tracking, like what Unified is already doing.
And somewhere down the road, the link itself may be even further removed from the interaction point. We’re already seeing Facebook and others remove the link in social posts, and put a card with a text description in it’s place instead. Of course, we still need the “directions” to get to our destination, but we don’t necessarily need to see the URL that gets us there.
To quote Arthur C Clarke, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
Clearly, URLs themselves are distinguishable, and therefore not sufficiently advanced enough.
Perhaps in the not-so-distant future links will just be in the background while we communicate with our AI assistants, and then we will say things like, “Back in my day we actually had to type the w-w-w.”
URL shortening has clearly matured as an industry, but we have a long way to go. While the nature of the “link” will never ever disappear, how we interact with content is continuously changing. For now though, we need to focus on sharing and tracking our content online so that we can become better marketers, better at business, and better at building our brand.
So, what do you think? Is there a crucial piece of history I missed? What do you think the future for URL shorteners will hold? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.
Originally Posted: August 18th, 2016.
Post Updated: November 16th, 2017.