Warning About URL Shortening

Thu Mar 18 16:43:30 2010 EDT (-0400 GMT)

Shortening URLs like bit.ly/warningwarning are a bad idea, filling a real need, that seems like it’s not going to just go away.

URLs like mattclare.ca/blog/2010/03/18/warning-about-url-shortening are descriptive, help service like Google but they are way too hard to remember and take a long time to type into a web browser. Services like tinyurl.com , snipurl.com, bit.ly , ow.ly and others provide a short URL that will re-direct users to the longer version.

Google even created their own shortener at goo.gl which, according to the official Google blog:

Google URL shortener is not a stand-alone service; you can’t use it to shorten links directly. Currently, Google URL Shortener is only available from the Google Toolbar and FeedBurner. If the service proves useful, we may eventually make it available for a wider audience in the future.

This was handy a few years ago, and once Twitter took off with its 140 character limit URL shortners took off with it. Most of these services now offer stats on how many clicks a URL has received — perfect for the follower count obsessed Twitterati (I mean that in a positive way – I promise).

The Danger!

The danger with URL shortners is you don’t know where you’re going to end up. With a URL like cbc.ca or mattclare.ca/blog/2010/03/18/warning-about-url-shortening or en.wikipedia.org/wiki/URL_shortening you have some idea of the reputation of that URL before you follow it. You can identify the domain, see if you know it, some times you can determine if you’re going to arrive at a web page, an image or a PDF document, etc. URL shortners obscure all of that.

This problem of this opaqueness was best demonstrated by the phenomenon of rickrolling. A (debate-ably) worse outcome is individuals clicking the short URL could be redirected to a malware/spyware site. While web browsers like Internet Explorer can be compromised just by visiting URLs this is a bad idea!

Enter Shady URL, at www.shadyurl.com . A web site that creates short URLs that look extra dangerous to click: For example mattclare.ca/blog/2010/03/18/warning-about-url-shortening becomes 5z8.info/malicious-cookie_h7l1k_peepshow . Shady URL’s slogan is “Don’t just shorten your URL, make it suspicious and frightening.” It’s about time these URLs became as frightening looking as they potentially are. Isn’t a happy ending made that much better by overcoming a challenge along the way?

URL Shortners aren’t going away any time soon. The broader Internet has adapt to this phenomanon.

What you can do:

A few things you can do are use third party clients for Twitter that let you preview URLs – like tweetdeck.com does. Or use the optional services some shorteners already have in place. Two examples are biy.ly/info and preview.tinyurl.com two locations you can use to both preview the URL you’re being redirected to and get stats on how many times the URL has been clicked.

For example:

There are also Firefox Add-ons like bit.ly preview.

You’ve been warned! Please do your part to protect others and yourself.

More Information:

Something else I learnt while writing this post: According to committeetoprotectbloggers.org URL shortners are blocked in Saudi Arabia. I don’t think blocking parts of the open internet are a good idea – as it’s obviously fraught with censorship issues and the internet changes too quickly for this approach to every be appropriate.

Looks like Twitter is worried about the same things: blog.twitter.com/2010/06/links-and-twitter-length-shouldnt.html

This summer, all links shared on Twitter.com or third-party apps will be wrapped with a t.co URL. They plan to display the links as short t.co links in SMS messages, and a longer form on the web etc. “to display links in a way that removes the obscurity of shortened link and lets you know where a link will take you.”

Can’t wait!

3 Responses to “Warning About URL Shortening”

  1. Mathieu Plourde Says:

    Yeah, URL shorteners are very useful, but they definitely can be misleading. We are in the process of deploying our own service here at U. of Delaware to use with our Sakai portfolios. If the domain name looks official, more people will trust it.

  2. Mathieu Plourde Says:

    Firefox has a new addon to expand short URLs: www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/03/30/AR2010033000925.html

  3. Matt Clare Says:

    Google Labs clients/domains can add the Short Links application from the Google Apps market place to their domain.


    It doesn’t de-obfuscate the short URL, but at least the URL is something like s.mattclare.ca/warning there is a little more trust/reputation invested in the URL.