I should back up a bit. For many, a link shortener is not common knowledge. However, for those who make their living in the social media world, link shorteners are about as common a tool as a hammer is to a carpenter. A link shortener is a service that takes any link that you want to share and shortens it to something more digestible. For example, the URL for an article we published last week, http://www.pdnonline.com/emergingphotographer/NYThroughTheLens-My-9086.shtml, is shortened to http://bit.ly/19x7T1F.
For many, that might seem like an unnecessary layer of complexity. Why go through the trouble of putting the link you want to share through a service first just so you can shorten it?
Why you should use it
Knowledge is power, as the old saying goes. That goes double on the Internet. If you are sending out links from your social media profiles—on Facebook, Google Plus, Twitter,—you want to know what links people are clicking on and what they aren’t. How else are you going to figure what strategies are working and what aren’t?
The beauty of a link shortener is that all of the good ones have integrated analytics and statistics. You can find out where your clicks are coming from, how many people clicked, and even hourly breakdowns of your clicks. That way, as we talked about in our Twitter and Facebook tips articles, you can figure out when is the best time for you to post to your audience.
If you are a Twitter user, you know that you only have 140 characters to get your message across. Often times, you are tweeting to send your followers to a blog post you just wrote or a cool link you want to share. It’s proven that the more information you provide about a link, the more likely people are to click on it. However, if you are wasting all of your 140 characters on your super-long link, you won’t be able to provide much context. That’s where a link shortener comes in.
Why you shouldn't use it
For many social media users, a link that has been clearly shortened is a cause for concern. This is far more true on Facebook than Twitter (where shortened links are the norm). The problem with a shortened link is that it disguises the domain that it came from. Your tweet might say, “Check out this New York Times article about Pandas” followed by a shortened link. However, it’s almost impossible for a user to tell if the shortened link actually goes to the Times’ website or if it goes somewhere completely different.
I wouldn’t worry about this if you’ve built up a credible reputation with your followers. Just don’t break that trust and mislead readers about where the link is going.
It’s common practice for companies in the Internet age to go from the industry standard to the garbage bin in just a couple of years. Since shortened link have become useful, there are a ton of services that have closed their doors, leaving users high and dry (most recently, StumbleUpon’s link shortening service). That creates a problem if the shuttered service was your service of choice. Generally, when the companies go under, the links you shortened go dead. If anyone starts looking through your backlog to find some old links (or if you do so), you are going to be out of luck.
This is less of a reason not to use a link shortener than to find a really reliable one. Currently, Bit.ly is the industry standard. You will be fine if you use that one. I would just keep track of all the links you share through it. That way, in the off chance, they do go under, you aren’t left trying to reverse search for your shared links.
To find out which link shortening services we think are the best, check in next week.