Thursday, September 17, 2009

Battle of the URL Shorteners

In the social web it seems there is nothing quite as fun as sharing URLs. With the rise of sites like Twitter, which limits communications to only 140 characters, and the often long length of URLs, there is a new breed of sites coming online that shorten URLs into tiny snippets of their former selves.

Take this URL for example, on Yahoo! about the Manny Ramirez drug scandal: If you were to post that URL to Twitter, 85 or your 140 character limit would already be used up, leaving you just 55 characters to type in your witty comment.

Along come the URL shorteners. Go to, copy that 85 character long Yahoo! URL into the text box, click the "Make Tiny URL" button, and receive this alternative tiny URL,, just 25 characters in length. That leaves me with 120 characters for my witty remarks.

Tinyurl has been around the Web for a long time, well before twitter came along. It has been a simple and single-purpose website. But, now that Twitter, Facebook, Digg, and so many other social sites have reached the big time, something new is happening. The sharing of URLs has reached critical mass, and services like Tinyurl have an opportunity to grow into something altogether new.

The sharing of URLs online is no longer just random unimportant noise. It is news. It is a pulse, indicating what is happening in a society. Take Tweetmeme for example. They get it. They treat all URLs shared via Twitter as news, and sort the most popular shared URLs to the top. Go to Tweetmeme any time of day and you can see what the society thinks is important right now, at this particular moment. That is because what we share via Twitter, in aggregate, is news.

Does Tinyurl understand how sites like Twitter have changed what it means to be an URL shortener? Upstart URL shortener seems to get it. They understand that the act of sharing an URL is an explicit act indicating interest in an URL and that there is more to be done with that information. Here are some new features of that prove my point:
  • remembers the URLs I've shortened. When I go back to they are all there for me to peruse.
  • Clicking on "info" shows me stats for the shortened URL. How many times was it clicked? Where were people located geographically when they clicked my url? What services were people on when they on when they clicked my shortened url? Who else shortened that URL. And so much more.
  • submits all shortened urls to OpenCalais to be semantically classified, categorized and tagged.
There are a number of other URL shorteners out there with other interesting and sometimes even funny features (I'm talking about you, I CAN HAZ dot COM.) I mention and specifically because Twitter recently switched from using Tinyurl's URL shortening service to Now, when you type a long URL into Twitter, it will automatically shorten that URL for you using

Until now, Tinyurl has been the biggest of the URL shorteners by a comfortable margin. I suspect, with this recent change by Twitter, more people are going to see the advantages of and start switching over. It won't happen overnight, but having Twitter repeatedly show your URL to millions daily is bound to have an effect on users. Looking at the chart to the left you can see the relative size of the two services, and, measured in visitors, and the amount of overlap between the two. Two months from now I expect that green circle to be a lot larger.

Another less discussed effect of having Twitter default to as an URL shortener is the profound effect it will have on's search engine placement. Search engines always try to sort the important links to the top, and one of the most important measures of a site/link's importance is the number of links pointing to it (this is a somewhat simplified explanation, but mostly right.)

As you can see from the data below, has been benefiting from the Twitter relationship.

Number of sites linking to and that are in the Alexa Top 1000:
  • Tinyurl - 386
  • - 9
The net result of this difference in number of highly ranked links is that Tinyurl has been doing well in search engines, while has not. Tinyurl gets an estimated 530K visits via search per month, while gets approximately 56K. will soon have tens of millions of links being pointed to it, all because somebody typed some link into Twitter, Twitter turned it into a URL, and somebody shared that shortened URL on a page, whether Twitter, Facebook, Digg, a personal blog or other. Soon, all the search engines will see as an important Web presence, causing it to get even more traffic from search. It is a virtuous circle and is the beneficiary.

It is still way to early to call a winner here, but the next six months will be an interesting time as these URL shorteners reinvent what it means to be an URL shortener, fight over market share, and come up with business models that allow them to sustain their business for the long haul.

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