Why we need to re-think URL shortening

Everywhere you look these days online there are “shortened URLs“. This is when a long and complicated website address such as “https://www.grahamjones.co.uk/2009/blog/useful-tools/how-to-remember-everything-you-want-to-online.html” can become . There is a real need for such shortening services on the Internet because you might need to add a web site address to a Tweet on Twitter. With only 140 characters a long address doesn’t give you much room for a message.

Will you confuse people with poorly constructed short URLs?

Will you confuse people with poorly constructed short URLs?

Plus, in emails a long website address (URL) can be broken up, which means only half the address becomes clickable, making it go nowhere. Equally, if you want a specific web page listed in a magazine, a newspaper or any kind of advertising, you’ll find it difficult fitting it into a narrow column width. There are several obvious reasons to have URL shortening.

But there is a massive reason why we shouldn’t have them. Do you know what https://tinyurl.com/yb6o8wcu will lead you to? Can you remember ? It might be cumbersome, but at least we know what “http://www.grahamjones.co.uk/blog/social-networking/twitter-and-facebook-could-significantly-change-human-health.html” is about…! And therein lies the problem – ordinary URLs are readable by human beings (but not always memorable) and short URLs are only easy for technology.

Here’s the issue – your short URLs cannot easily be passed on by word of mouth. You can’t mention them in your publicity materials or on TV or radio because no-one will remember them and won’t be able to pass them on. Short URLs are not human. They only work in places like Twitter or Facebook where people will actually click on your link. But take a long hard look at your web analytics and note the proportion of people who come “direct” to your web pages. These are the people who typed in your web page address. They didn’t search for you, they didn’t click on a link and they didn’t find you in a social network. These people got your actual web page address from places like your business card, your offline publicity materials such as brochures and advertising or from hearing someone else mention your website address in the pub. The numbers of people who come direct to your website are significant.

This means if you use URL shortening you are missing out on a huge swathe of traffic that could be visiting those pages. But they are never going to be able to remember http://bit.ly/6hVYdb nor are they going to bother to pass it on “word of mouth” down the pub. Who do you think would have done best with word of mouth gocompare.com or alturl.com/j2dd? URL shortening is seriously affecting word of mouth promotion of your business (which is one of the best resources you have).

There is no denying the value of URL shortening if all you are after are clicks. But if you truly want more people to visit your web pages you need URLs that human beings can remember (and hopefully pass on). So, for instance, let’s say you wanted to understand how you can manage a blog strategy for your business. I could direct you to my free report at https://www.grahamjones.co.uk/2013/download/blogging-advice/blog-content-planning-tool.html. But that’s not terribly easy to remember (nor short enough for Twitter etc). So what about going to blogplanning.co.uk? It’s easier to remember and short enough to use in Twitter. But if you have clicked on both these links you’ll find they end up in the same place…! The “blogplanning.co.uk” domain merely gets forwarded to the web page on my main website. And it’s a darn site easier to remember and pass on than https://tinyurl.com/y9rczkpc.

So we need a new strategy for shortened URLs that make them easy for human beings, rather than being OK for Twitter. In other words, don’t let Twitter and Facebook be in charge of the way your business gets traffic. At the moment legions of business owners are acquiescing to technological solutions which miss out a vital source of traffic – human beings…!

In my business, I have a double strategy. If a web page is important to me in terms of income I’ll buy a domain name and forward it to the page necessary. So, in the example above it means I can say the phrase “go to blogplanning.co.uk” in talks I give; it’s quick and easy to write down for the audience and relatively easy to recall if you were ever in a conversation about blogging. Equally, it’s short so I can use it in Twitter as well as other places like emails where short URLs are vital. Furthermore, it’s also short enough to be able to be used in single newspaper columns, making it more likely that editors won’t cross it out…!

For web pages that are not as important, but which I’d like people to remember you could use your own URL shortening service. It’s a script you simply add to a short domain name you own. You can get the script from YOURLS (a neat combination of Your and Urls..!). It also comes with a WordPress plug-in enabling you to automate URL shortening at your blog.

So what do you need to do to shorten your URLs? If the URL is not that important a conventional shortening service may be OK, such as using those embedded within things like Tweetdeck. If the page is relatively important to you then a script that generates short URLs specific to you and which are easily memorable by people is a good compromise. But if the page you are trying to promote is quite important for your business than nothing really beats having a specific domain name that is easy to remember by people.

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