Since Twitter limits messages to 140 characters, users have quickly come to depend on "URL shorteners." These free services take the long URLs for links that we find on the Web and shrink them to a manageable, eye-friendly size. Some shortening tools even allow you track the performance (i.e. number of clicks) that a URL receives from Twitter and other social networking services. But all shorteners aren't alike; as I'll show you, some offer more advanced features.
Even if you don't use URL shorteners yet, you've no doubt seen them on Twitter. For instance, last week, the link to my explanation of the new Google Wave app appeared like this on CIO.com:
Using bit.ly, a popular URL shortening service, I posted the story to Twitter using this URL:
More Twitter Tips on CIO.com
Ideally, the shorter URL made it easier for the people who follow me on Twitter to share the link with their followers. The shorter URL also gives people more character space to make a comment about the link in their tweets, explaining what they liked or disliked (it happens!) about the review. Like many URL shorteners, bit.ly allows me to track how many people on Twitter clicked on the link and "retweeted" (shared) it with their followers, which is also helpful.
But URL shorteners have some drawbacks, too. For one, they are becoming weapons for spam attacks, because shortened URLs appear very generic. A typical shortened URL contains the address of the URL shortening service, followed by a few random characters.
Spammers can easily hide harmful links behind these addresses. They entice people to click on malware links by purporting that the link will lead to something useful and legitimate. This is more of a problem in e-mail, but it could occur on Twitter as you begin to follow random people you've never met.
Shortened URLs can be bad for the web ecosystem as well. Because Twitter has become a place we rely on to share the items we read, and ideally be able to search and find them again later, relying on these services could have its costs in the future. What if, for instance, a shortened URL service suffered an outage? If you wanted to access a link, and didn't have the original (long) URL, you might be in trouble. What if, more significantly, the service went out of business?
But even given those dangers, URL shortening services will remain prevalent, so long as Twitter doesn't provide such a service itself or adjust the character limit, both of which scenarios seem unlikely. So here are some tips for what features you can utilize on these tools. I won't cover all URL shorteners (there are just too many). Overall, many of these services do essentially the same thing, but some work especially well to enhance your experience on Twitter.
(If you want a full list of URL shorteners, here is the most comprehensive one I could find).
1. The basics of URL shortening
For those of you just getting started, you don't need any robust application to start shortening your URLs. You can use the most well-known URL shortening website (mostly a function of being one of the first to market): TinyURL.com. At TinyURL.com, you simply copy and paste your link into the bar that says "Enter a long URL to make tiny." It will then, well, make your long link tiny.
Many people like to preview shortened URLs before they visit the actual link (often for the purposes of safety), a feature that TinyURL offers. The service will allow you to give users a "preview link." With a preview, the link doesn't take people directly to the website or webpage. It takes them to TinyURL's site, where they can view the link's full address. This isn't something a lot of people use, but it's there if you want it.
Once you have your shortened URL, simply copy and paste it into Twitter to go alongside your Tweet where you explain its content to your followers.
Other URL sites (which we'll discuss) allow you to immediately share the link on services like Twitter, Facebook and FriendFeed (to name a few) by simply clicking on a button that will automatically redirect you.
Most URL shorteners also let you create a custom set of characters at the end of your URL, to make it even more reader-friendly. Snipurl has a nice "edit" button that performs this task rather well.
2. Tap into short URL analytics for Twitter
After you share shortened links on Twitter, you may want to know how many people clicked through . Many marketing and media types have full-blown analytics tools for this task, but URL shorteners can provide some free analytics concerning Twitter. bit.ly, tweetburner, is.gd, tr.im, and snipurl (among many, many others) offer a variety of analytics capabilities. Usually, you have to sign up for the privilege, but it's typically free.
What each of these sites offer varies, but many show clicks, referrers (the sites in which a URL is clicked on), and rough geographic locations of the people who clicked on a link. I use bit.ly, which offers all of these features in a visually appealing way.
On bit.ly, each link that you shorten has its own analytics page. bit.ly also has charts where you can track a URL by day, week or month. It shows you a picture of the web page (and of course the original link that you shortened). You can see the conversations occurring in Twitter around the URL as well.
3. Some Twitter apps shorten URLs themselves
Twitter has an ecosystem of free, third-party apps that people typically install on their desktops to access more advanced features not available on Twitter.com. Luckily, many of these apps, including TweetDeck, twhirl and Seesmic Desktop, all offer you the ability to shorten URLs within the app using one of these services.
TweetDeck lets you choose between a variety of URL shorteners, including bit.ly, tinyurl, digg, tr.im, twurl, and is.gd. You simply copy and paste your link into the "shorten" box in TweetDeck and choose the URL shortening service that you prefer. TweetDeck will automatically talk to that service and create a short URL.
4. Search on how various short URLs performed
Aside from keeping track of your own tweeted links, you might want to see how the link of a friend, colleague or competitor fared on Twitter. One of the neatest features on URL shortening services is the ability to track these links.
On bit.ly, you can click on the "search" tab and enter the bit.ly address someone tweeted (or retweeted). When you get the results back, you can see the people who retweeted it. Click "info" to be taken to the type of analytics page discussed earlier.
Conclusion: Your net gain from URL shorteners
The criticisms of URL shorteners mentioned earlier are worth noting, but you should use them until Twitter comes up with something better. In the end, these free features help you better understand what types of links and content matter to your audience (followers) on Twitter. For example, if you keep linking to a white paper on your product, and it receives 5 clicks and only one retweet, you know you might be pushing irrelevant (or boring) content.
C.G. Lynch covers Twitter, Facebook and other social technologies for CIO.com. You can follow him on Twitter at @cglynch.