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The uselessness of URL shorteners

URL shorteners are a cool in some occasions. They allow you to shrink a huge 150+ character URL into a very short one, mostly about 20 chars. That is especially useful if you have to be economic in your use of characters. One service that really matters on is of course Twitter. For years people have been using URL shorteners like bit.ly and tinyurl.com or they even set up their very own one with scripts like yourls.

A while ago, in its long ongoing attempt to totally close the platform, Twitter introduced its own URL shortener, t.co and shortly after declared that any link contained in a tweet will always be shortened with t.co, whether you want it or not and whether it’s longer or shorter than the actual shortened URL.

That especially means that even 3rd party shortened links will get shortened a second time. Well, at first that just sounds stupid. Does that even make sense? Of course it doesn’t. And the main reason is not the shortening of a shortened URL.

The Twitter URL shortener may seem like it’s pretty useless after all. But actually it is not. The integration of t.co’s API into every Twitter client including the website itself allows those clients to resolve the shortened URL before displaying it. So what you will actually see is the first few 20 or 30 characters of the real URL behind the shortened one, then abbreviated by “…”. By that you will never get to see a t.co URL anywhere — assuming you are using an up-to-date client and are not copying the link out of your client. In that case, some clients will hand over the shortened URL.

The pre-resolving of the t.co URLs gives your readers the advantage of total control about what they are really clicking for. How many times in the past have we seen rather unfunny use of the concealed state of shortened URLs? You can’t tell whether you are going for a news article or onto a porn site (or yet another highly overused Rick Rolling video) before you actually click the link, and while links like bit.ly or tinyurl can be resolved before being displayed, too, it requires the developers of clients to integrate numerous different shorteners. Having run quite a few clients over time I can tell that most of devs did not make use of that ability. And I get that. Now that Twitter does shorten a link no matter what, developers can just do that one integration and are good to go.

What messes up the complete disclosure of shortened links are users who continue to use “the old shorteners” on Twitter. Sure, they may have their reasons. The use of the analytics features, sharing the link via various different networks, etc. But still it makes no sense to me. To be honest, seeing a shortened, unresolved URL on Twitter these days even stops me from clicking it. The rest of the tweet would have to be very convincing and clear about the underlying content to get me over the fact, that it is just inconvenient and ugly.

I don’t know if I am the only one who thinks like that, so I would like to know in the comments below!