URL shortening services have become quite popular lately, primarily due to the restricted length of “tweets” on Twitter. Danny Sullivan compared several of these services in URL Shorteners: Which Shortening Service Should You Use? and talked about the SEO implications of using these services, especially when it comes to passing along link love.
But not much has been written (yet) about the potential for spam and unintended consequences that can arise with shortened URLs. Matt McGee, in his post Twazzup: New All-In-One Twitter Search Engine, noted that Twitter searching can often produce unexpected results, especially when shortened URLs are involved. He posits that custom URL shortening services seem like an invitation for spamming via custom short URLs. Check this Twitter search for U2, and you’ll see if my own attempt to appear for searches for U2 worked. I took a short URL, added the letters u2 in it, linking back to my own personal web site, like this, http://snipurl.com/u2g0p0u, and was done. It took less than ten seconds. So far, it looks like Twitter does not include the characters within any tweeted URL when looking for the search term in all tweets.
Even if they did, this type of tweet link isn’t truly evil, as it could easily happen unintentionally if the default shortened URL by chance had the characters U2 in it. All this would do is include one off-topic entry into a Twitter search for the band U2. And not many U2 fans are looking for linking services anyway.
On the other hand, there are far more nefarious things people can and are already doing with links created via URL shorteners. People use URL shorteners to disguise links in their Twitter posts (and elsewhere), so for example their post about a breaking news story at CNN.com with a shortened URL link to the story is actually a link to a casino site. Now, add in the ability to customize shortened URLs, like snipurl allows on the fly, and we have a whole new world of Twitter (and other venue) spam possibilities.
I’m white hat, and even I was able to figure out how to do the U2 trick above. Imagine when heavy duty spammers add in other features, like redirects at the destination URLs, changed and leased for a fee to whoever is willing to pay. Then that shortened URL spam continues to have value over time, leading to a whole other spam tactic, pushing deceptive shortened URLs any and everywhere. Bookmarking them, stumbling them, retweeting them near and far. I can envision a shortened custom URL land rush just like we had for domain names.
What about user trust?
I’ll spare everyone the shortened URL doomsday scenario, but from a linking standpoint, I can see clearly that the best approach to shortened links will be to roll your own, in-house, using your own top level domain so as to give the clicker confidence in the destination.
For example, let’s say I want to direct people to this article
More Anchor text Best Practices – http://www.ericward.com/bestpractices/2008/04/update1-anchor-text-best-practices.html
Well that’s a nasty URL. It would take up most of a tweet, and might even break in half in an email message (indeed, most URL shortening services started to solve the email-breakage problem with long URLs). So instead, what if I give you these URLs.
Which of the above would you be most confident in clicking?
The first. Why? Because the shortened URL has my name/domain in it, and that’s a visual reinforcement/comfort for the clicker.
I did this one with a basic 301, which is just a workaround. Long term, site-wide for any site producing significant new content at long URLs, the best solution will be to create your own domain branded version of a URL shortener. Some services offer this already, I’m sure. If not, opportunity knocks, and there’s my closer. Look for them all to offer fee based custom domain URL shortener services sooner rather than later. And while I haven’t looked, I have to believe there’s software you can put on your own server to do this already. As my example above shows, I need it myself.
Of course, until and unless the engines do a better job of passing juice via shortened URL links than they have with 301′s, this is all nothing but a click confidence traffic fix. Search rank? I’ll believe it when I see it.
Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.