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Twitter Tips: URL shorteners do more than save space

Twitter Tips: URL shorteners do more than save space

Several free services will shorten URLs for sharing on Twitter, but they're not all created equal. Here's how to not only save space, but also use analytics features to understand what content matters most to your followers.

Since Twitter limits messages to 140 characters, users have quickly come to depend on "URL shorteners." These free services take the long URLs for links that we find on the Web and shrink them to a manageable, eye-friendly size. Some shortening tools even allow you track the performance (i.e. number of clicks) that a URL receives from Twitter and other social networking services. But all shorteners aren't alike; as I'll show you, some offer more advanced features.

Even if you don't use URL shorteners yet, you've no doubt seen them on Twitter. For instance, last week, the link to my explanation of the new Google Wave app appeared like this on CIO.com:

http://www.cio.com/article/493707/Google_Wave_A_New_Kind_of_Mega_Application

Using bit.ly, a popular URL shortening service, I posted the story to Twitter using this URL:

http://bit.ly/gXwbf

Ideally, the shorter URL made it easier for the people who follow me on Twitter to share the link with their followers. The shorter URL also gives people more character space to make a comment about the link in their tweets, explaining what they liked or disliked (it happens!) about the review. Like many URL shorteners, bit.ly allows me to track how many people on Twitter clicked on the link and "retweeted" (shared) it with their followers, which is also helpful.

But URL shorteners have some drawbacks, too. For one, they are becoming weapons for spam attacks, because shortened URLs appear very generic. A typical shortened URL contains the address of the URL shortening service, followed by a few random characters.

Spammers can easily hide harmful links behind these addresses. They entice people to click on malware links by purporting that the link will lead to something useful and legitimate. This is more of a problem in e-mail, but it could occur on Twitter as you begin to follow random people you've never met.

Shortened URLs can be bad for the web ecosystem as well. Because Twitter has become a place we rely on to share the items we read, and ideally be able to search and find them again later, relying on these services could have its costs in the future. What if, for instance, a shortened URL service suffered an outage? If you wanted to access a link, and didn't have the original (long) URL, you might be in trouble. What if, more significantly, the service went out of business?

But even given those dangers, URL shortening services will remain prevalent, so long as Twitter doesn't provide such a service itself or adjust the character limit, both of which scenarios seem unlikely. So here are some tips for what features you can utilize on these tools. I won't cover all URL shorteners (there are just too many). Overall, many of these services do essentially the same thing, but some work especially well to enhance your experience on Twitter.

(If you want a full list of URL shorteners, here is the most comprehensive one I could find).

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