A family member in the web design and development business recently brought up URL shorteners to me. He had just built his own custom shortener that utilized his name and suggested that we do the same here at House of Copy. The way he saw it, why promote the services of another shortener (bit.ly or tinyurl) when you could publicize your own brand via customized short URLs?
This got me to thinking about some pros and cons of a custom URL shortener. Lots of questions and ideas came to mind pertaining to using our own custom House of Copy URL shortener, and I was able to do a little research and find some pretty interesting answers:
1. PRO: Your links will never die.
Like any other business, URL shortener companies are at risk of going out of business. It happens. But when they go out of business, so do the links you shortened with their service. By using your own customized shortener, the links don’t die until your service does.
CON: Bit.ly is doing well and not going anywhere.
Short, but true.
2. PRO: Short URLs are a necessity for Social Media, so you may as well self-brand.
The fact that so many short URL companies are so unstable is the main reason why many frown upon URL shorteners. They weaken the web in that they can be wiped out seemingly at any time. Companies like Bit.ly have hit the big time only because they offer a robust service, analytics and were endorsed by Twitter as their preferred URL shortener. Which brings me to the next reason: Shortened URLs are a necessity when it comes to Social Media, particularly on Twitter and Facebook and those two sites are not going away nor losing any business impact any time soon. Shortened URLs are here to stay.
Seeing as how shortened URLs are going to be around for awhile, you have to ask yourself why you would want to shorten your URLs and simultaneously promote another company’s product? This is how Bit.ly and tinyurl have built their businesses, so why shouldn’t you do the same? By creating your own custom shortened URLs that contain your brand name (albeit abbreviated in some way), you’re adding a bit of marketing to every use.
CON: Is having a highly abbreviated version of your brand name on every URL really going to have that much of an effect?
In the beginning, unless you are already a well-established and well-known brand, no one is going to recognize an abbreviated version of your brand name, no matter how specific it may be. Brand recognition may come eventually, but how often have you thought of “Bit.ly” as an abbreviation for a longer name? If we use “hoc.us” as the shortened URL format, people are going to think about a company called “Hoc,” not an abbreviation for House of Copy. Now you could do a good job publicizing your URL shortener, but really, how much time are you willing to spend on marketing something that forces an explanation of the actual name in order to understand the products value?
3. PRO: Shortened URLs are great for usability.
It is a fact that shortened URLs are great from a usability standpoint. They shorten ugly, long URLs into something clean and customizable. That’s it.
CON: People are nervous enough about viruses, spam, etc.
Some of the paranoids out there like to hover over a link and see where they’re going. So when they are unable to to really discern the link destination because it is a shortened URL, you may lose a few users.
4. PRO: Fairly easy to build/find/implement.
You can obviously build your own shortener, but the most well-known tool that takes care of most of the effort is Yourls. This nifty little tool can be used with pretty much any website and is fairly easy to implement (you don’t even have to really be able to understand code!). Yourls even offers a WordPress plugin.
CON: Well, you have to actually build/find/implement it.
5. Not so much a PRO/CON, but an important question: What about the SEO effects like…
Anchor Text? Not many problems.
Anchor text (the actual text that becomes a link) is key when it comes to links, and shortened URLs do not really have much effect on it. When you create a link and provide a shortened URL (using your own custom service, of course) you are still writing out keywords to wrap around that URL. Your anchor text is still being read and the link is being followed through by the crawler. However this doesn’t even matter when it comes to Twitter/Facebook, etc. because all of their external links are no-followed anyway.
In terms of the bot actually crawling your anchor text and links, you may lose some link power thanks to the lack of relevant keywords that might sit in the original URL string AND match the anchor text that wraps them. I was unable to find out if this was a serious detriment to the power of a link, but it seems to me that since it’s a custom short URL, you would be able to add the actual anchor text after the “/”. Example: “seo services” is the anchor text and the shortened URL could be “hoc.us/seo-services”
Redirecting? Bad, Bad, Bad.
This negative has to do with using the shortener on internal links within your own site. URL shorteners–if built correctly–should provide a 301 redirect to the page being linked to. However, there are some that do not (some might use a 302), so using you’re own, customized URL shortener would eliminate this problem now wouldn’t it? The real problem is the issue of 301 redirects causing Pagerank decay. By using those custom short URLs on every internal link throughout your site, you might be slowly chipping away at your PR. Granted the decay is so small that (as the Bruce Clay article states) it is not enough to warrant using other redirect options like a nofollow or simply letting a user land on a 404 page, but we’re not talking about redirecting in the traditional sense here. We’re talking about using a redirect for the sake of using a shorter, branded URL.
In my opinion, the ends do not justify the means here. Stick with the full URLs when it comes to internal links within your own website.
Page Speed? Could be an issue.
Now a major factor in search rankings, Page Speed is more important than ever. At first I thought that using your own custom URL shortener might help overall page speed averages by avoiding extra DNS lookups on other servers (meaning whenever someone clicks on a shortened link from Bit.ly, the link has to first ping the Bit.ly service before it actually gets to looking up the associated long URL). But then I realized that, by using your own custom URL service, you are basically generating a lot more pings to your own server(s) rather than another site’s servers. So long as you have plenty of bandwidth or are not expecting to get hundreds of thousands or even millions of clicks on your custom short URLs, go ahead customize those bad boys.
First of all, unless you have already made a name for yourself or your business online, having your own brand of short URLs is not going to make that happen any faster. Time would be better spent pumping out quality content, optimizing your site or maybe focusing on your clients. Not to mention, if you have already made a name for yourself, why bother with creating a URL shortener? You will have to spend more time explaining what your version of a shortened URL means than actually convincing people to use it. There are also the technical aspects to think about, such as why put extra weight on your servers, risking your page speeds, for the sake of a shortened URL? Why deal with potential PageRank decay if you don’t have to?
Custom, branded short URLs are a great feature for any business who wants to have a Social Media presence, and being able to create your own does up the brand visibility factor. However I would have to say that while the number of pros and cons is equal, the effect of the cons definitely outweigh those of the pros.
What do you think? Let us know in the comments!
Brian Thomas Clark
Owner, Auditor, Janitor
I'm a Dad, Husband, Brutal SEO Auditor & BBQer. I do SEO, Analytics, Backlink, and Local Search Audits in Orange County, CA, where no one uses turn signals and there is a Chase Bank on every block for some reason.