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Thanks to Twitter's rising popularity--and its finite, 140-character message length limit--free URL shortening services have been all the rage recently. But they should not become a critical part of your company's infrastructure.

Why not? Because there's no guarantee they're going to work. Most of today's short URL services are run by small, modestly funded startups that could easily shut them down--or change the way they work. Both have recently happened.

 

  1. Nambu announced plans to shut down the tr.im URL shortener this past weekend. "tr.im did well for what it was, but, alas, it was not enough. We simply cannot find a way to justify continuing to work on it, or pay its network costs, which are not inconsequential," the company said.

    This means that any tr.im URLs out there on the web will break. Translation: "Same as writing a million post-it notes w/ invisible ink," The New York Time's Nick Bilton notes on Twitter. Anyone who cares about the visitors coming from those sources will need to replace those links.
  2. Digg recently changed the way its digg.com URL shortener worked. Instead of sending viewers to the website that had been shortened, it started sending people to a page on digg.com that had a link to the target URL. This means that anyone using the Digg URL shortener--as we had on our Twitter account for a few days, for instance--would be forcing its readers through a middle man. Hardly elegant or ideal.

    And this doesn't even take other problems like downtime into account.

The best solution for normal web "consumers" is to keep using short URLs the way you do now--this is not a big deal for most people. But be aware that they should only be used for short-term, non-mission-critical uses, and that they shouldn't be seen as a permanent URL replacement. (Don't bake them into documents or web links unless absolutely necessary.)

For businesses that use short URLs for commercial purposes, like newsletters or huge Twitter presences, you may want to invest in creating a custom short URL for your company's links.

Flickr, TechCrunch and other web publishers have done this recently, either using in-house solutions or a third-party like awe.sm. This could help if public URL shorteners go down or go away.

But, same risk here, though reduced--that the third-party short URL provider could go out of business. So make sure you can move your account and data elsewhere, if necessary.

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