May 4, 2009

Shortened Links May Provide Tracking Benefits

If you spend any amount of time on the internet, it is almost impossible to avoid clicking on a shortened link web address.

URL shorteners that shrink bulky Web addresses into abbreviated links have been around for years. TinyURL.com was started in 2002 by unicyclist Kevin Gilbertson and now ranks as the most popular URL shortening service.

With the recent influx of micro-blogging sites such as Twitter and Facebook where messages are limited in length and every character counts, these abbreviating tools have greatly increased in popularity.

URL shorteners are easy to create, and several competitors have expanded with truncated names like Bit.ly, Is.gd and Tr.im. Most of these tools are very simple and are not backed by any real money-making business model.

Danny Sullivan, editor of the blog Search Engine Land, told the New York Times he believes that shorteners could have a greater value than merely making Web addresses more manageable.

They have the ability to track use and record how often a particular link was clicked as well as the geographic origin of the clickers. This information could be incredibly valuable to marketers, news outlets and companies who seek to measure the effectiveness of a link, tweet or mention online.

"The tracking element is very important," said Mr. Sullivan. Some tools even highlight comments that have been posted to Facebook or FriendFeed pertaining to a particular link. This is a feature that standard tools like Google Analytics may not be capable of providing.

One of the popular link shortening services, Bit.ly, is now attempting to build a business model around that kind of data.

Betaworks Studios is a New York technology breeding ground that has invested in Tumblr, a micro-blogging tool; OMGPOP, a social gaming site; and Outside.in, a hyper local news aggregator. It developed Bit.ly as an inside tool for its portfolio of companies to use.

"It emerged as much more than that," commented the chief executive of Betaworks, John Borthwick. "Everyone from Dell to Demi Moore is on Twitter and could want to track their emerging social system."

Since Bit.ly's debut last year, its traffic has skyrocketed. The company now reports 50 million Bit.ly links being clicked each week. This number represents more than double the rate of early April and according to chief operating officer of Betaworks, Andrew Weissman, they expect to reach 60 million by next week.

The growth has attracted much interest in venture financing. Bit.ly recently announced that it had raised $2 million from investors such as Alpha Tech Ventures, the software industry pioneer Mitch Kapor and the early Google investor Ron Conway.

Since Bit.ly tracks its shortened URLs in real time, this service could eventually be "a real source for extracting information about how people are using the Web," Mr. Sacca, an investor who has financed several Web start-ups, including Bit.ly, Twitter and Photobucket said.

In addition to tracking links, Bit.ly uses a service called Calais, developed by Thomson Reuters, which can note semantic terms from the Web pages Bit.ly users are being redirected to. These allow Bit.ly to track the most popular topics being shared across the Web, as well as pinpoint particular categories such as finance or health care and recall the most popular Web sites shared on that subject within a 24 hour period.

The company hopes that the ability to track the "social distribution of information in real-time," as Mr. Borthwick characterizes it, will be of relevance to the future of Web search.
Although Bit.ly is still trying to figure out how to make money from all of this, Mr. Borthwick says, "There's a business model here"¦we can smell it."

Internet security experts have expressed great concern about the increased use of shortened URLs. They say that despite its usefulness, it could provide a subterfuge for spam and phishing attacks and link people to malicious Web sites.

"People have no way to know where they're going," warns Patrik Runald, chief security advisor at F-Secure Security Labs, a maker of security software. "These services are great and they serve a purpose, but at the same time, there is a darker side."

And if a shortening site shuts down, any links funneled through it would be irretrievable, Mr. Runald added.

Bit.ly says it is taking this danger into account by working on an archiving system to discourage links from decaying and implementing several filters and a preview function in Firefox and TweetDeck, a desktop application for Twitter, to help decrease spam.

Because it is so simple to use, there is a great threat to start-up companies like Bit.ly that major corporations will then create their own custom URL shorteners to bolster their own brands. Digg, StumbleUpon and FriendFeed recently revealed shortening services, and it would be just as easy for the big social networks, like Facebook or Twitter, to create their own as well. And there is always the chance that a big company like Google will step in and annihilate competition.

"That's always a risk, but we're racing to establish ourselves in the market," said Mr. Weissman. "We're willing to bet that innovation comes from weird little corners of the Internet, like this."


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