The Era of Short URLs

The name Friedhelm Hillebrand should be forever etched into the annals of communications history. Hillebrand was working with a team of engineers to lay the groundwork for mobile devices to send and receive short text messages to one another back in 1985. There was a clear need for efficiency in this system.

One day, Hillebrand sat alone typing out personal messages, trying to find an equilibrium point where a person could express himself and keep network load at a minimum.

After trying out several sentences and counting each letter, space, and punctuation mark, Hillebrand decided the correct number was 160 characters. In his words, he felt this was “perfectly sufficient,” and that limit was coded into the system that would ultimately be adopted the world over. Hillebrand isn’t the father of the text message, per se, but he may just be the father of the quirky language and abbreviations that the scarcity of space spawned, IMHO.

Enter the Twitter

When Twitter was launched on an unsuspecting world, the engineers adopted this 160-character limit, simply because they wanted to ensure that tweets could be both sent and received via SMS. They shortened the message part to 140 characters, reserving 20 characters for the user’s name.

The character limit seemed to work perfectly for the service. We already had plenty of ways for people to express themselves in deep and verbose ways — blogs, e-mail, wikis, and so on. What we were missing was a quick, low-involvement way to communicate and update. If the limit was much greater, we probably would be less interested.

But as Twitter has evolves and becomes more popular, the service is increasingly used to send links around to your network, showing your network some bit of content that you want them to see or announcing that your latest ClickZ column has been posted (ahem…@garyst3in). But URLs are so long. Even the short ones are long, considering that you’ve got to include the “www” and all those slashes and question marks and who knows what else.

Suddenly, there’s enormous interest in simple tools that can shorten a long URL to just a few characters. What had been a useful tool to know about is now an essential part of communicating. What was previously a space with really just one player (TinyURL) has suddenly become a serious sector. Lifehacker offers a short list of some URL shorteners currently available. Each one adds just a bit more functionality. And if that isn’t enough, there are also some open source projects you can download and customize for yourself.

URL Shorteners Are Critical to Social Marketing

You may be thinking, “Thank you for this random bit of Internet trivia, Mr. Stein. But could you please give me something even slightly valuable?”

OK, you got it. Here’s a bit of advice. If you’re using social networks for marketing, begin using a URL shortener now.

URL shorteners do two things. First, they shorten URLs. Second, they create a unique URL to a destination, which can be tracked. That’s the key element for marketers. In fact, one of the up-and-comers in this space,, has built analytics directly into its interface.

By using URL shorteners, you can begin capturing some excellent insight. For example you can see how many times a particular community forwards a message compared to another community. That is, since you can create two unique short URLs to the same page, put one on Twitter and embed the other in an e-mail. You can then analyze the clicks you get in standard A/B testing.

You can also measure pass-along rates. Since the recipient of the original short URL will most likely pass along the short URL (not the original URL), you can see how far down the particular path you’ve created to a page goes.

Not Just for Other People’s Content and Twitter

The cool thing about URL shorteners is that you can shorten anything. Sure, the traditional way to use these services is to shorten a link to someone else’s content and send it via a medium that requires you to be terse. But there’s no reason you can’t use the same method on links to your own site. Or put it in an e-mail. Or on your own site.

Fact is, URL shorteners provide an easy way to track traffic you’re generating via social media channels. Like most things on social media, the cost of entry to use these tools is free. They’re definitely worth a try.

Join us for a one-day Online Marketing Summit in a city near you from May 5, 2009, to July 1, 2009. Choose from one of 16 events designed to help interactive marketers do their jobs more effectively. All sessions are new this year and cover such topics as social media, e-mail marketing, search, and integrated marketing.

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