A URL Shortener is a method to convert a long URL to a short URL using a 301 redirect from the short URL to the long URL.
Why use a URL Shortener?
1. Track Clicks
Most URL shorteners track clicks for each link. Marketers can view the success of each link by the number of clicks.
Twitter has a character limit for tweeting. Shortening a URL will save a lot of characters allowing you to add more context to your tweet.
Text messages also have a limited number of characters. Using a short URL within a text message is very common, if you need to include a link within your message.
4. Long Ugly URLs
Long URLs especially URLs that contain many query strings and/or campaign parameters may not be esthetically pleasing. By shortening the URL, you can create a much cleaner look.
Analytics (clicks vs pageviews)
Short links are typically tracked by clicks, but what happens if the visitor abandons before the landing page is displayed? The link may show 500 clicks, but if the landing page only has 100 pageviews, that is a big discrepancy.
Why does this occur? Bots are notoriously known for spidering across social media pages and are the main reason for this. So reporting on clicks isn’t the recommended approach. I highly suggest ignoring the clicks metric on short URLs and instead report on pageviews to the landing page with the campaign tracking values. See more about generating UTM Campaign Parameters.
How Shorteners Work?
Short URLs use a series of redirects to route the visitor to the appropriate destination URL.
When a user clicks on a short URL: https://ctail.co/kk3m9o it will call the web server hosted at ctail.co passing the unique value 'kk3m90'. Using this value it will look-up the destination URL and return it as a 301 redirect.
This will redirect the users browser to the destination URL https://campaigntail.com/Blog/URL-Shorteners-Link-Management-Government/?utm_source=twitter&utm_medium=social&utm_content=20160305&utm_campaign=gousagov
Which will display the webpage in the users browser.
301 redirects are recommended by Google to avoid any SEO issues.
There are other type of redirects, but stay away from 302 redirects as 302 is meant for a temporary redirect.
Find out how your URL Shortener is redirecting, check out HTTP Status
Growth in Popularity
Short URLs have been around since 2000 when the first patent was filed. The first prominent URL shortening service was TinyURL. There are now hundreds of URL shortening service. Here are some of the most popular services.
bit.ly - Bitly
goo.gl - Google
ow.ly - Hootsuite
tinyurl.com - TinyURL
t.co - Twitter
Government URL Shorteners:
go.usa.gov – U.S. Government Shortener (Federal, State, Local)
go.vic.gov.au – Victorian Government
Branded and Custom Short Domains:
Branded short domains are recommend if you are a company that promotes on social media sites. Visitors will recognize that it is a trusted domain related to your brand and/or company. Making it more likely to be clicked on.
Many companies have created their own short domain so they can represent their own brand within the short URLs.
amex.co - American Express
ford.to - Ford
thd.co - The Home Depot
Impact on SEO
Most URL Shorteners have no impact on SEO as long as they use a 301 redirect and have good uptime. See video explaining this in detail by Google experts at Google Webmaster.
1. The biggest risk for short URLs is that it is not apparent where the link will navigate to. Many spammers take advantage of short URLs for this reason. Spammers will create short URLs that redirect you to bad places.
2. Short domains can expire and shortening service can go out of business. See this list
3. There is a dependency on more servers between the short URL and the ending URL. They require being online 24 hours a day for 7 days a week so they can navigate visitors through the series of redirects.
4. The redirects impact the time it takes from when the users taps or clicks on a short URL, until the page is displayed in the browser.
The main advantage of Short URLs is that it provides a way to compact a long URL into a short URL for sharing, posting on social media sites, and/or advertising within campaigns like email and SMS.