Link shorteners

In an earlier piece, I advised against relying on link-shortening services.

Why?

Links are the connective tissue of the web. Anything that tampers with how links work should be approached with extreme caution.

In general, shorter links are preferable; when naming your site’s directories and pages, shorter beats longer (they should still be meaningful and human-readable, though).

Link-shortening services scratch an itch; no question. They leave more of those precious 140-characters for your tweets, but that convenience comes at a price: you can’t read them, and they may not last.

What happens to your blog or your social media timeline when the third-party URL-shortening service you’ve been relying on for years goes out of business (it was free, after all), changes business models, or gets bought-up by Google/Facebook/Yahoo, who in turn neglect/kill/ruin it? Will the old links still work? Maybe.

That may not seem like a big deal today, when your Tweets or blog posts seem ephemeral, disposable even; but when you change your mind later, it could be too late.

Link leeches

Some services fully insert themselves between you and the things you link to in ways that are not only user-hostile, but which also negate many of the benefits of website traffic (e.g. knowing the source of the traffic) while still leeching off the original publishers’ bandwidth.

While the users of these services may be unaware of these issues, the owners of these platforms are not.

Shortened links (dangerously) hide their destinations

From both a usability and a security point of view, this is probably the worst thing about shortened links: you can’t tell if clicking one will take you to Facebook, YouTube, Wikipedia, or someplace worse.

In a work environment, this is a serious risk.

When I paste a link to this site into a Tweet, people don’t typically see tantramar.ca or tantramarinteractive.com, they see a t.co link (some 3rd-party Twitter apps resolve shortened links, converting them back into their original form).

The t.co domain is Twitter’s in-house shortening service. Twitter uses it to route all tweeted linked traffic through its own servers — to be parsed and measured in whatever way they see fit, for their own benefit, and no one else’s — before allowing you on your way to your intended website.

This is not how links are meant to work, and represents a subversion of the open nature of the Web.

It’s similar to what’s called, in security circles, a man-in-the-middle (MitM), where a third-party invisibly inserts themselves between others. It’s not that they’re up to anything illegal or unethical; they’re using it to measure and monetize traffic by selling data about it to advertisers. It’s the usual trade-offs we make when we use free online services.

It also provides Twitter with a choke-point for any links they don’t approve of.

What to do

There’s no way around t.co if you’re using twitter. Sometimes we use these services passively — unaware, even — by choosing to use other services. This isn’t about seeing monsters lurking in every shadow; it’s just about understanding what’s happening.

Your site’s visitors will thank you. Transparency is better for everyone.

Update