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What is a URL Shortener?

What is a URL Shortener

The Ultimate Guide to when, how, and why you should use a URL shortener.

It’s a fair question… As a URL shortener and a company that specializes in everything to do with links, it’s something we get asked quite a lot.

So we thought we’d give you the entire breakdown on this secretly evolving industry. Find out how you can use URL shortening to your advantage.

Let’s jump right in…

What is a URL shortener?

A URL shortener is a simple tool that takes a long URL and turns it into whatever URL you would like it to be.

What is a URL Shortener? How to plug a URL into a URL shortener
How to plug a URL into the Rebrandly URL shortener

It couldn’t be any simpler than that.

I want to clarify that a URL shortener is the same as a link shortener… is the same as a link shrinker… a link compressor… a URL condenser… a vanity URL creator… I think that’s them all covered. They are all different ways of saying the same thing, which is that we want to take something long and ugly, then make it short and cute. To keep it simple, I will stick with the term URL shortener from today until the day I die.

What is a Custom URL Shortener?

A custom, or branded URL shortener, is when you’ve connected your own custom domain to a URL shortener which acts as a base for all the short links you create. Instead of using a generic domain such as bit.ly or rebrand.ly, you can pick your own.

It’s perfectly explained in this gif:

URL Shortener

We always recommend using your own custom domain when sharing links online as it leads to increased link trust, brand awareness, and click-through rate.

If you want to find out more about the difference between branded and generic short links, you can check out the video below:

A Brief History of URL Shorteners

Since the dawn of the internet, links have been the way to get from one place to another online. Think about it, you either start by searching for something and then clicking a link, or by typing a link directly into your browser’s address bar. There’s no other way to get around.

You can share links directly, embed them in “anchor text” like this, or use a custom link shortener to make your links branded and cool like this:

Derric.link/Twitter (hey… follow me on Twitter while you are at it.)

With the advent of Twitter and other social sharing platforms, lengthy URLs started to become a problem. Originally Twitter – who used to limit messages to 140 characters – counted all characters in a link. (Now it makes all links count as 23 characters), which meant sharing a URL like:

http://www.marketingprofs.com/chirp/2016/29075/the-state-of-social-media-marketing-infographic

Would eat up the entire Tweet… Unless you used a URL shortener.

And Twitter did…

Originally TinyURL was the URL shortener of choice for Twitter, before the platform switched over to Bitly in November, 2009.

Then Twitter eventually came out with their own URL Shortener: t.co. Designed to both protect users from malicious links and shorten lengthy URLs.

Google followed suit by launching goo.gl in December 2009, and dozens of URL shorteners have followed in since then, all with varying features and revenue models. (Though, it’s worth noting that earlier this year Goo.gl announced it will be winding down its service).

But aside from this early necessity of URL shorteners for Twitter “back in the day” what can URL shorteners do for you right now?

What Can a URL Shortener Do?

URL Shortener

URL Shortening has come a long way since its inception in the year 2000.

Here are a handful of pretty slick things you can do with your URL shortener today:

Link Masking

Obviously shortening a URL allows you to mask the original web address.

This is bad for us as consumers in the sense that it allows for spammers and hackers to hide malicious links from us. Thankfully, with security protection features from Chrome and other browsers (you use Chrome, right? You should…) we no longer have to worry about malicious link masking.

Proper link masking might be where you take a URL from a strong piece of content that you are looking to share, and simplify it to portray a key point in your social message. For example:

The original link is: https://blog.bufferapp.com/the-top-100-social-media-blogs, which isn’t too ugly to begin with – but is too long to show on Twitter.

So I created a short link to portray the same message in a shorter space while masking the fact that the post is from Buffer. I’m not masking it for malicious reasons. In fact, I share many other Tweets that reference them and link to the same piece of content. But I am masking the destination URL from the user.

Other good reasons for masking a link might include:

  • Hiding, “beautifying,” or branding an ugly affiliate link.
  • Shortening a lengthy domain such as my upcoming book title: “playyourbusinesslikeapokerplayer.com” to something simpler like “bizpoker.link”
  • Tracking – maybe you are just masking the link so that you can track how many people click on this one specific link. This is a digital marketing best practice when sharing links online.

And don’t confuse link masking with link cloaking – which is presenting false information, most specifically to search engines – called spiders or bots – while redirecting humans to a different URL that has nothing to do with the forged content. This is a black hat SEO practice that can get your website banned from Google search results. Don’t do it.

Link Shortening

It’s much simpler to share a short and memorable URL than a lengthy one, especially when those lengthy URLs contain random numbers in them.

Which URL are you going to shout to a room full of people while giving a talk? The short one, or the long one?

Which URL would you link to in your presentation?

Which URL would you want to tell people at a networking event when you ran out of business cards? Me, I use Derric.link/card. It’s that simple.

Which URL do you want to put into a forum when sharing some new ideas?

Whenever you are sharing a link in a public setting, you should be using a link shortening tool to help pretty up the link and track the number of click-throughs.

Link Tracking

Link tracking has got to be the number one reason to shorten a link. We, as digital marketers and social media managers, need to know the fruits of our labors…

And we probably have to do monthly reports on our efforts too.

If we can’t prove our clicks – and hopefully conversions – then we have very little job security.

The absolute best technology to track links from click to conversion has got to be our sister company ClickMeter. (Yes I’m biased, but I still haven’t seen anything close to this good – though, Rebrandly is launching some suave new analytics features this summer).

URL Shortener

You can see how many real visitors clicked on a link versus the number of bots or spiders. This gives you a more accurate idea of real visitors coming to your site and the conversion rate. You can get a daily breakdown, or even a geographical one (not shown). And there are a hundred other features worth checking out.

ClickMeter is not for everyone though. It’s more for heavy digital marketers or social media managers looking to track large or ongoing campaigns in great detail.

But simple link tracking is very important for all marketing efforts, whether it’s personal or professional… For curiosity or for ROI… Which is why TinyURL is kind of useless now. But tools like bit.ly, snip.ly and, of coursem Rebrandly are the preferred URL shorteners.

URL Shortener Rebrandly
Click Report in Rebrandly

Link Retargeting

Retarget Your Marketing Links. How to use retargeting links.

Have you heard of retargeting?

It’s why you get hit with Amazon ads right after viewing a product on its website.

Retargeting is essentially the act of adding a little pixel, or piece of code, to your site, so that when people visit, you can serve ads to them later.

URL Shortener

It’s crazy profitable for marketers and advertisers, and I frequently refer to it as the lowest hanging fruit for any business.

But wait, there’s more…

Now users do not even have to visit your website to get tagged with this pixel, they simply need to click on a link. It’s called link retargeting.

Retargeting links can expand your marketing reach to outside of the “awareness” stage of the funnel to more of a “pre-awareness” stage that helps fine-tune your targeting when advertising online.

You can use a tool like Rebrandly or ClickMeter to add retargeting pixels to your links and expand your custom audiences inside platforms like Facebook, Google AdWords, and Twitter.

Link Rotating

Ever wanted to run an A/B test but weren’t sure how to do it?

With advanced linking features you can actually split traffic 50/50 – or 75/25, or whatever – from within the link itself and thus perform a simple landing page test. Now this isn’t necessary for advertising, as you can just run two ads, and there are other tools, like Optimizely, that let you handle this on the page instead of within the link, but there are some opportunities for testing split traffic for your links.

You can also do something like run a contest and have the first click go to the “winner” page, while every other click goes to a “try again” page.

Link Swapping or Changing

It’s so simple, yet most of the link shortening services don’t let you do it…

You create a shortened link and share it across 12 different networks, then one day down the road, the page your link points to is taken down. Good luck finding and changing all those old links… You’re screwed!

Not anymore. With Rebrandly, you own your links. If you want to change out the destination URL, you can. It takes just a couple of seconds and those 12 links you shared all those months ago will automatically update. Crisis averted.

Here’s a great example of how to use link swapping in conjunction with your Instagram bio so you can direct traffic to your latest blog post without having to change the Instagram website link every time:

When to use a URL Shortener

Obviously, there is a cost to opening up a new browser window, plugging in the name of your favorite URL shortener (that’s us, right?), and copy-pasting a new link in, just to share it once.

I get it, it’s a little annoying. But there are ways to speed this up, such as a Chrome plugin or iPhone app.

Nonetheless, there are times when you should use a URL shortener – and times when you shouldn’t.

Use a URL shortener when you need to track the efforts of a social post or campaign. This is worthwhile when a link is sending traffic to your site, but especially when it’s not.

For example, maybe you send out 100 tweets linking to curated content each month. This is content which points followers to some of your favorite industry resources. Did anyone like that content? You can find out simply by checking the stats in your URL shortener. You’ll be able to easily spot your top performers.

You should use a URL shortener:

When posting a link across multiple sites on the web. As discussed earlier, it’s a lot easier to track and change one link in one place, rather than hunt down all versions of it posted across your marketing channels and make the necessary changes. And that’s assuming you can even make those changes.

You should use short links in all social profile bio’s – for the same reason.

You should not use a URL shortener:

When linking from one page of your own site to another. Especially if you are using anchor text – which you should almost always do. There’s no need for additional tracking here, as you should be able to see your results clearly in Google Analytics. You are using Google Analytics, right?.

When sending an email or chat message to friends. There’s no need to shorten your link. You can embed the link in anchor text or just paste it right in there. Your friend trusts you so there is no need to worry about them not clicking due to a funky looking or lengthy URL.

Popular URL shorteners

Obviously, our business, Rebrandly, is a URL shortener. We fancy ourselves quite good at it too. We have some perks such as:

  • Making it easy to purchase and connect any branded domain that you like.
  • Making it easy to connect to our more advanced analytics tool – ClickMeter – for advanced tracking, features, and analytics.
  • We also have our own advanced features, including analytics, a UTM builder and link retargeting capabilities.
  • The ability to own and edit your destination links at any time.
  • Easily share links across multiple channels with the click of a button.

And we are constantly working to integrate with every single marketing platform and tool out there to provide our users a better experience.

But aside from ourselves, there are a few other URL shorteners out there, and they serve slightly different purposes.  We are only going to cover the big 3:

Bitly

Bitly is a great URL shortening tool and it integrates directly with a lot of platforms, like Coschedule, and Buffer.

The free version has been known to have some tracking issues, where up to 90% of clicks being tracked aren’t coming from real people. It’s gotten better at it by reporting this as “dark traffic”, but the platform still masks the fact that most clicks on their links are coming from bots.

URL Shortener

Imagine thinking you got 27 clicks on a link when you really only got 3, it’s more than disappointing. It’s dangerous because it can lead to massive reporting and attribution errors.

Most bit.ly links are created using a URL slug randomizer – a random generated URL that would look something like: bit.ly/nb3Jw.

We recommend avoiding randomly generated URLs as they are illegible, miss an opportunity to engage with your audience, and add no value to the people who see your links.

All in all, bit.ly is a quick and easy URL shortener that people typically use to shorten links, but not to brand them, which is just kind of a missed opportunity by marketers.

Also note: the paid version comes in at a whopping $995/month.

Goo.gl

Who doesn’t love Google?

Google’s URL shortener, Goo.gl, is tied directly to your Google account, which makes keeping all your links in one place nice and easy. The tool tracks clicks really well too. But this no longer matters because Goo.gl is winding down.

Earlier this year, Google announced it is discontinuing its URL shortening service. New customers can no longer gain access to it. While current users need to find an alternative soon as their access to the Goo.gl console will be cut off in March 2019.

TinyURL

I know I’m supposed to tell you why you should use TinyURL… But the truth is, you shouldn’t. There’s only one pro, you can create shortened URLs without having to log in or drop an email. But Bitly lets you do that anyways…

If that’s what you’re looking for, then use it. But you will miss out on the tracking, and the ease of sharing that Bitly offers. Oh, and they run ads on their homepage, which are quite annoying.

For more info on URL shorteners, you can check out this handy blog post.

Final Thoughts

If you’re on the internet at all, you’ve got to be using a URL shortener. Whether it’s for personal use as a productivity hack, or to track and report on results for your business… Use a URL shortener.

If you don’t choose Rebrandly, so be it. I will miss you, but that’s OK. Do what’s right for you and your business. You can check out some of your other options here.

If you do choose Rebrandly, I’ll love you forever and send you (invisible) chocolate in the mail every month to remind you of how awesome you are.

And if you do go another direction, it should probably be toward Bitly.

No matter what, I highly recommend getting your own custom domain, as I did with Derric.link. There are so many cool things you can do from there to impress your friends, save you time and boost your marketing strategy.

What do you think? What’s your favorite link shortener? Are you still struggling to track your links properly? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

Further Reading:

This Article is About:

  • URL Shortening
  • URL Shorteners
  • Link Retargeting
  • Link Tracking

Originally Posted: June 22nd, 2017.
Post Updated: July 5th, 2018.

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Head of Growth at Rebrandly. Derric is a lifelong entrepreneur and passionate about helping startups and marketers not suck. He speaks, practices, and blogs about growth and digital marketing on Rebrandly and across the universe.