The use of URL shortening service, pioneered by TinyURL, was partly due to the limited amount of characters allocated on Twitter (now Twitter automatically generates ) and the fact that long URLs can be difficult to memorize. There are also services that provide internal tracking mechanism that reports clicks, views or locations of the engaged audience.
With these services, it doesn’t matter if the URL is long (as long as it’s within the 2,083 character limit), you can add extra parameters such as URL builder tracking parameters. That’s because they can be abbreviated to just a few characters, and occupy small space.
Yet, despite the obvious advantages of this service, let us examine the perils of using a URL shortening service, specifically the generic ones.
1. Short URLs can be difficult to memorize.
Even though they are short in length, these shortened URLs may still be a series of random characters similar to what you’ll see in a typical YouTube URL. Although some services have custom alias option, your chosen vanity URL could also be unavailable, like your favorite domain names snapped by someone else long time ago. You don’t need to memorize them, but if this short URL appears on offline channels, its ability to bridge between offline (magazine commercials, billboard ads or direct mail invitations) and your destination URL depends on how easy for your audience to remember them, or will they be put off or misguided by the sight of some random character elements.
2. Third-party short URL service can shut down.
If Geocities and Google Answers got shut down, so will these third-party URL shortening services, especially if they are not profitable nor getting financial support. We all hope this won’t happen but if it does, all the your links you connected with this service will not work. Not even a 301 redirection will solve the issue. So that’s a risk when you created these short URLs and placed them on offline channels for people to view and access, suddenly they became broken links. Another major impact is that your destination URL will also lose a portion of its inbound links that may or may not impact your SEO efforts.
3. Short URL offers no clue to destination URL.
Every single URL generated by the URL shortening services like Bit.ly, Owl.ly, TinyURL and Su.pr will show no clue about the destination URL. Wait, there’s a little clue if the alias used provides descriptive hint, though I don’t expect it to be very descriptive otherwise it might be too long that it’s no longer a short URL. With this setup people might have hesitation on whether to click this link or not.
4. URL shortener service can go offline.
Unlike item #2 which is a permanent shutdown of service and all links you generate are rendered useless, URL services can suffer intermittent disruption of service. Power supply issues, security intrusion or any forms of cyber attack could result in links that don’t work. If you are running an important campaign during the same period and you are using this particular service, the success of your campaign might hang in the balance. Your success could depend on how this service secured its infrastructure. If it fails, your brand likely cannot avoid negative impression.
5. Short URLs can lead to malicious, unsafe web pages.
Since the destination landing page URL is not visible when it is shortened, people will have no idea where they’ll land on once they click the link or type the short URL address. Even if provided with a hint, that might just be a disguise to attract audience and lead them to phishing sites or those that pose security issues such as those that auto-download malicious programs that extract information from your machine or phone.
6. Generic short URLs mask brand identity.
If you are a big organization, part of your branding exercise should include even the URL shortening service. Using generic short URLs don’t reveal your brand identity. Pepsi (pep.si), Virgin (virg.in), BBC (bbc.in) and The New York Times (nyti.ms) have their own custom link shortening service when sharing content on social media. Using generic short URLs isn’t necessarily bad (discounting all the disadvantages I listed here) but having your own custom URL can improve brand visibility and consistency.
For example, Cathay Pacific might use the CX airline code to use say cx.link (domain available at Godaddy).
7. Short URL services likely slow speed of the web.
By using an extra layer of URL before forwarding to a destination landing page, there exists an extra step in the journey of a visitor to a website. But even though 301 redirection method is supposed to be quick and painless, speed could be an issue when bridging two sites of different technical backgrounds. A study in 2010 showed that all of the 14 URL shortening services tested have significantly slowed down page loading time. Seven years later, we can only hope these are already resolved. Otherwise, this page loading speed issue which is one of search engine factors, might impact search visibility of the landing page.
Although this post points out the disadvantages of using URL shortening service, it should not give you the impression they are useless and must be avoided. They are still the only solution to reduce character length of a URL besides finding a very short domain name and URL structure on your pages. It’s just that you don’t have to use them all the time. And if you should, just be reminded of the impact if any of the pitfalls above might be significant.