Reclaim and Own Your Short URLs

There are many reasons to like the use of URL shorteners such as bit.ly and tinyurl.com. These free services take a long URL such as this post – http://www.vicchi.org/2010/03/03/reclaim-and-own-your-short-urls – and compresses them down to a much more manageable shorterned version – http://bit.ly/aG1RBx or http://tinyurl.com/ylaodny.

They increase link sharing; the vast majority of social networking sites use 140 characters as the maximum size for an update, using the full version of a URL you’re sharing reduces the amount of space for you to put your own thoughts into the update. Just compare the full URL http://www.vicchi.org/2010/03/03/reclaim-and-own-your-short-urls at 65 characters against http://bit.ly/aG1RBx at 21 characters.

They can track and yield click and referrer information; the information that bit.ly provides is so useful, showing live clicks, geographic and referrer information amongst others.

another awesome bit.ly site down graphic

But almost a year ago, Delicious founder and ex-Yahoo! Joshua Schachter made some pretty compelling arguments against short URLs:

The worst problem is that shortening services add another layer of indirection to an already creaky system. A regular hyperlink implicates a browser, its DNS resolver, the publisher’s DNS server, and the publisher’s website. With a shortening service, you’re adding something that acts like a third DNS resolver.

But the biggest burden falls on the clicker, the person who follows the links. The extra layer of indirection slows down browsing with additional DNS lookups and server hits. A new and potentially unreliable middleman now sits between the link and its destination. And the long-term archivability of the hyperlink now depends on the health of a third party.

Or to put it another way, you no longer own your links or the data clicks that those links yield. If the service dies, your links break, pure and simple, and that does happen, as the demise of the original tr.im and cli.gs services show.

Get used to it... tr.im is currently unavailable

But there is a way to take all the benefit that short URLs offer and keep ownership of your links and all the data that clicks on those links will give you and that’s to run your own URL shortening service, which is precisely what I’ve done with vtny.org which is running the YOURLS code behind the scenes. This gives me all the benefits and metrics that other URL shorteners provide but with the added and crucial benefit that I now own the links and the data they generate, in this case via the vtny.org/4 short URL.

The URL shortener at vtny.org goes live

Photo credit: playerx and revrev on Flickr
Written and posted from home (51.427051, -0.333344)

7 Comments

  • Cool! Pardon the slowness, but you registered vtny.org and have YOURLS running on your blog and this site? I only ask because I downloaded the YOURLS WordPress plugin for my site and was wondering how to go from there.

  • At the moment I have YOURLS running on vtny.org, I wanted as small a domain as I could get and vtny.org gives me a two character saving over vicchi.org. I could have run YOURLS on vicchi.org but would have had to either a) move my blog into a subfolder, thus breaking all my existing links or b) run YOURLS in a subfolder, thus making the short links, err, longer. So I chose to register vtny.org as it was both small and cheap (£12.00 for 2 years if I recall correctly).

    It looks like domain registrars have cottoned onto the interest in short domains and prices are getting stupid; I really didn’t see the point in parting with $500.00 and upwards for an even shorter domain than vtny.org.

    I haven’t played with the WordPress plugin yet; from a cursory glance it looks to be able to use an install of YOURLS either on the same domain as the WordPress install or on a different one. This article from the plugin’s authors might help: http://planetozh.com/blog/yourls-wordpress-to-twitter-a-short-url-plugin/ as might the WordPress plugin page on wordpress.org: http://wordpress.org/extend/plugins/yourls-wordpress-to-twitter/

    Prior to this I used the Twitter Tools and Twitter Tools – Bit.ly Links plugins to great effect … I might see if I can use the Bit.ly Links plugin as a base for one to hook into vtny.org if the YOURLS plugin doesn’t work as I’d like.

    Let me know how you get on …

  • Hi Gary

    Do you know about 301works (http://www.301works.org/)? They’re working to address some of these issues in an independent way, with cooperation from 20+ shorteners.

    There’s also bit.ly pro, which looks like yourl, but with bit.ly to host/run it for you, and they’re a 301works member, too.

    It feels a bit like deciding whether to host your own email server or just use e.g., google. I host my own email, but probably wont bother to set up my own shortener. Nice to have options though – thanks for the link.

    When are you next in Barcelona????

  • Hi Terry,

    No, I didn’t know about 301works. It looks like they are indeed trying to address some of the issues that the sudden death of a URL shortening service would leave as a legacy. The 301works site is a bit information light at the moment and key pieces of their story are scattered around their site (deeply ironic given that they’re part of the Internet Archive) so there’s a certain amount of reading-between-the-lines here. It looks like 301works will act as a sort of link escrow but it won’t solve the basic usability issue.

    Let’s take a theoretical URL shortener called sho.rt. It dies and leaves behind a trail of short URLs, all of which have been placed in escrow by 301works. The basic “click on this link” model of the internet is still broken as the person clicking on a link needs to know how to interpret the (probably) 404 or domain resolution error as meaning “go to the Internet Archive, find out if sho.rt signed up to 301works, look for the link if they did and then finally go to where the (now defunct) short URL actually pointed to”. That’s 4 steps minimum rather than 1 step (click on the link) and I would suggest that most net users won’t bother. It will suit the needs of litigators and net historians who will know this sort of stuff, but they’re a minority.

    It’s also worth saying that if bit.ly were to die today, now, right this very minute, it’s unclear from 301works what would be done, if anything, to retain bit.ly’s extant short URLs. The cynic in me says “probably nothing”.

    Your idea of setting up an email server as analagous to setting up a URL shortener doesn’t quite work to my mind. My email for vicchi.org is currently hosted on my ISP’s IMAP server as well as being mirrored locally on my laptop(s) and backed up to at least 3 different types of network attached storage, which may be overkill but bear with me. I’m able to gain access to all of my data, in the form of emails, easily and if my ISP were to go offline I’d still have all of my emails cached locally and backed up. Some mails may be lost as an artifact of the timing of my ISP dying but only a few.

    In order for the mail server analogy to work, I’d need a unique URI for each email, which could only be resolved by querying a server hosted by my ISP; I wouldn’t be able to cache my emails nor would I be able to back them up as I’d only be able to store the unique URIs, not what they resolve to.

    All of the above has to be taken with the pinch of salt that running vtny.org as my own short URL service is an experiment that’s yet to yield any firm results. We should revisit this discussion sometime in the future, say 6 months, to see whether there’s been a substantial shift in 301work’s efficacy that would make vtny.org redundant.

  • Hi again Gary

    Point taken on the analogy not being really spot on.

    A few more comments on 301works. First, I don’t think they’re fully set up yet. And second, it sounds a bit like you don’t get the 301 part of their name. That’s the HTTP code for “moved permanently”. So the idea is that if one of the shorteners in the 301works group went out of business, their domain would be taken (in some way) and a server would give a 301 permanent redirect response with a Location header set to e.g., http://301works.org/?link=http%3A%2F%2Fbit.ly%2FaG1RBx to use your example URL above. The redirect would be transparent to the user, would be considered permanent by clients, and so things would in theory keep working. But like I said, they’re not quite there yet.

    Note that I’m not saying that having your own shortener isn’t worth it (e.g., I don’t know if 301works could somehow get you a list of all the URLs you’ve ever shortened, though I doubt it). But knowing that they exist does at least, in theory, cater for the worst-case scenario of billions of links suddenly becoming non-functional.

  • @Maitri – I tried the WordPress plugin for YOURLS with my last post. It didn’t work … it created short URLs for the last 4 of my posts (3 previously published and the post I was actually publishing) and didn’t notify Twitter for any of them. Will look into this in a bit more detail over the weekend.

  • @Terry – 1) I can seen they’re not up and running yet. 2) I totally get the “301” part though I read it as the redirection that the short URL server itself gives rather than the one which 301works would give.

    I think the key point here is one of scale. In order to be effective, the service would need to place the URLs in escrow at the time they were created and not at some later point in time. As social media usage increases (and it is) the number of short URLs in existence will increase (and it is) and the problem will soon be out of hand.

    I think 301works is a worthy ideal and it’s good to see the Internet Archive working with the major short URL services but the cynic in me sees this as an “initiative” which won’t work properly due to the number of organisations involved and is trying to solve a problem which is already pretty much unsolvable.