This week I showed a colleague a few of my favorite tricks with link shorteners — you know, the services that replace http://www.YourVeryLongURL.com/then-the-directory-name/plus-the-long-name-of-that-specific-page with http://bit.ly/sh0rtl1nks. After sharing some tips with her I realized they were worth writing down.
Short links help you drive traffic to your web site or blog by making it easier to share links: and the more often you share your links with people, the more often they’ll click through to visit your site. Link shorteners make it easier to share links in three different situations:
- Including a link in a tweet, SMS message or other update that constrains your total message length to 140 characters: you don’t want to waste half of that 140 on a long URL!
- Sharing a URL in an email, print document, or anywhere else that it would be intrusive to see a very long URL written out in full.
- Remembering a link that you like to share on a recurring basis.
I use two link shortening services to support these different use cases:
bit.ly is my day-to-day URL shortener. It’s handy for many reasons, including its sidebar bookmarklet (clicking a button in my menu bar now opens a sidebar I can use to create a bit.ly link, without leaving the page I’m on) and especially for the ability to customize the links I create. If I create a link for this post using bit.ly, it will initially give me a URL based on a random set of characters, like http://bit.ly/baea3q. But if I click the “custom” button, bit.ly lets me create my own, more memorable URL, like http://bit.ly/sh0rtl1nks. You usually have to play around with the custom name a bit — I used a zero instead of an “o”, and a one instead of an “i”, because “shortlinks” was already taken.
A custom URL is handy if you are planning to tweet the same link multiple times (because you can easily remember which link to tweet) or if you have a repertoire of pages or blog posts that you like to point people to on a regular basis. For example, I often tell people about my “Don’t Keep Up With Social Media” blog post (http://bit.ly/K33PUP), my “10 reasons to stop apologizing for your online life” post (http://bit.ly/n0s0rry), or my methodology for getting my inbox to zero (http://bit.ly/inzero). A year-and-a-half after writing that inbox zero post, I can still remember that bit.ly URL, so when I get into conversations about e-mail triage I can scrawl the URL on the back of my business card and hand it over. (This would be even cooler if I could get a custom URL shortener working with Google — so that I could refer people to http://awsamuel.com/inzero — but after several tries I have never gotten it working. Tips?) You may also find it useful to create memorable short links to web sites that aren’t yours: if there is an online article or blog post that you frequently point your clients too, you may want to create a short link that will make it easy to share that resource.
A custom URL is also better for sharing a link in a print document: I for one do not understand why the print edition of the New York Times uses the random links generated automatically by bit.ly (or nyti.ms), instead of customizing its bit.ly links to relate to the article that contains them. It is way easier for someone reading a print document to turn to their computer and type http://bit.ly/inzero than to enter http://bit.ly/dAJIZ, since the latter will require them to refer back to the document and confirm they have the right combination of upper and lowercase characters. The one thing to be careful about when creating links to share in print is that if you are using numbers to substitute for letters, your reader may not enter them correctly — try to either avoid the numbers-for-letters trick, or use a font that makes numbers look very different from letters.
ow.ly is the URL shortener built into HootSuite, a Twitter client. I use HootSuite for more and more of my tweeting because I love the ability to schedule tweets (HootSuite’s scheduling is way more robust than TweetDeck‘s “tweet later” function) and to collaborate with other members of a team. Using HootSuite’s ow.ly is handy because it lets you shorten your link from the same interface you’re using to tweet.
But the real advantage of ow.ly is that it gives you great stats on how often each link gets clicked: you can actually see the number of clicks for each individual tweet, even if you tweet the same link multiple times in a day. When I write a blog post, I typically schedule 3 or 4 tweets to go out over the next 24 hours, linking to my post, with teasers for the post that are phrased a different way each time. (I intersperse these scheduled self-promotions with other kinds of non-self-promoting tweets, so my Twitter feed won’t be tedious.) Bit.ly can tell me how many times each link gets clicked, but that doesn’t tell me which tweets drive the most traffic. With ow.ly, I’ve been able to figure out which times of day yield the best results, and which kinds of tweets generate the most interest; for example, questions that act as somewhat enigmatic teasers seem to do better than tweets that literally recap my post.
Link shorteners are only growing in popularity, so I’m sure that there are many more tricks out there for using them smartly — I’d love to hear yours. In particular, we’ve got to cope with the diminishing supply of memorable keywords: now that I’ve snagged http://bit.ly/sh0rtl1nks for this post, that’s one less handy URL for the next link-shortening blogger to use in creating a short link. Perhaps memorable short links will be our next great crisis of scarcity, and one day our children will worry about running out of short links the way we worry about running out of oil.