Patrice Riemens on Mon, 13 Apr 2009 17:43:14 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> fwdfyi: Joshua Schachter on URL Shorteners

As TinyURL fan myself, I couldn't resist this one!
And it's all the fault of Rop Gonggrijp! (whi introduced me to TinYurl)
patrizio & Diiiinooos!
(rail sardine can was fantastic! Lalu Jai Ki Ho!)

----- Forwarded message from Pranesh Prakash <> -----

Date: Sat, 11 Apr 2009 14:55:46 +0530
Subject: Joshua Schachter on URL Shorteners
From: Pranesh Prakash <>

on url shorteners

URL shortening services have been around for a number of years. Their
original purpose was to prevent cumbersome URLs from getting
fragmented by broken email clients that felt the need to wrap
everything to an 80 column screen. But it's 2009 now, and this problem
no longer exists. Instead it's been replaced by the SMS-oriented 140
character constraints of sites like Twitter. (Let's leave aside the
fact that any phone that can run a web browser and thus follow links
can also run a proper client, and doesn't have to hew to the SMS
character limit.) Since TinyURL, there has been a rapid proliferation
of shortening services.

Aside from the raw utility of allowing URLs to fit within a Twitter
message, newer services add several interesting bits of functionality.
The most important of these is that let the linker turn any link into
THEIR link, and view metrics on how far it's spread and how many
clicks it's gotten. Showing a user how popular his actions are is
inevitably addictive. Shorteners are relatively easy and lightweight
to set up. Adding a simple interstitial before the redirect provides
an obvious way to monetize. And maybe someday all the link data will
be worth something.

So there are clear benefits for both the service (low cost of entry,
potentially easy profit) and the linker (the quick rush of
popularity). But URL shorteners are bad for the rest of us.

The worst problem is that shortening services add another layer of
indirection to an already creaky system. A regular hyperlink
implicates a browser, its DNS resolver, the publisher's DNS server,
and the publisher's website. With a shortening service, you're adding
something that acts like a third DNS resolver, except one that is
assembled out of unvetted PHP and MySQL, without the benevolent
oversight of luminaries like Dan Kaminsky and St. Postel.

There are three other parties in the ecosystem of a link: the
publisher (the site the link points to), the transit (places where
that shortened link is used, such as Twitter or Typepad), and the
clicker (the person who ultimately follows the shortened links). Each
is harmed to some extent by URL shortening.

The transit's main problem with these systems is that a link that used
to be transparent is now opaque and requires a lookup operation. From
my past experience with Delicious, I know that a huge proportion of
shortened links are just a disguise for spam, so examining the
expanded URL is a necessary step. The transit has to hit every
shortened link to get at the underlying link and hope that it doesn't
get throttled. It also has to log and store every redirect it ever

The publisher's problems are milder. It's possible that the
redirection steps steals search juice ??? I don't know how search
engines handle these kinds of redirects. It certainly makes it harder
to track down links to the published site if the publisher ever needs
to reach their authors. And the publisher may lose information about
the source of its traffic.

But the biggest burden falls on the clicker, the person who follows
the links. The extra layer of indirection slows down browsing with
additional DNS lookups and server hits. A new and potentially
unreliable middleman now sits between the link and its destination.
And the long-term archivability of the hyperlink now depends on the
health of a third party. The shortener may decide a link is a Terms Of
Service violation and delete it. If the shortener accidentally erases
a database, forgets to renew its domain, or just disappears, the link
will break. If a top-level domain changes its policy on commercial
use, the link will break. If the shortener gets hacked, every link
becomes a potential phishing attack.

There are usability issues as well. The clicker can't even tell by
hovering where a link will take them, which is bad form. Some sites
offer link previews, but there's no way to make a preview preference
stick globally across the many shortening services. And just like ad
networks, link shortening services could track a user's behavior
across many domains. That makes the paranoid among us uncomfortable.
We hope the shortener never decides to add interstitials or otherwise
"monetize" the link with ads, but we have no guarantee.

For these reasons, I feel that shorteners are bad for the ecosystem as
a whole. But what can be done to improve the situation?

One important conclusion is that services providing transit (or at
least require a shortening service) should at least log all redirects,
in case the shortening services disappear. If the data is as important
as everyone seems to think, they should own it. And websites that
generate very long URLs, such as map sites, could provide their own
shortening services. Or, better yet, take steps to keep the URLs from
growing monstrous in the first place.

You could guarantee that the shortened link is the one that was
originally shortened by using a cryptographic hash. But this causes
URLs that aren't as short as is possible.

A variety of greasemonkey scripts resolve shortened URLs and replace
them inline.

Finally, shortening services could provide archives of their entire
database - but this raises all sorts of privacy concerns that I
hesitate to even dig into.

The most likely, of course, is that we don't do anything and that the
great linkrot apocalypse causes all of modern culture to dissapear in
a puff of smoke. Hopefully.

With thanks to Maciej Ceglowski

Posted by joshua on April 3, 2009 10:40 AM

----- End forwarded message -----

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