Why tinyurl.com and its cousins are a blight upon the internet

Every web page on the internet has an URL that is a unique address (that’s why it goes in the “address” bar), and in the beginning everyone used that. But early e-mail clients kinda sucked, and some of the current ones still do, and those addresses were so long they’d wrap, or had some funky characters in them that the e-mail client wasn’t expecting, and so it’d break the URL in such a way that you’d have to copy and paste both parts of it into the address bar instead of just clicking on it.

This kinda sucked.

Then Twitter came along and said “You only get 140 characters because that’s all that’ll fit in an SMS”. And, trying to write a useful little post in under 140 characters with some big-ass url eating up a third of them really sucked.

So, people turned to tinyurl.com and it’s cousins. Because they promised short urls that saved you characters and would always be clickable in crappy email clients so long as you ignore the fine print. Fine Print? What fine print? Well, imagine, if you will, that an URL is a bridge to a distant place. A normal URL works like a normal bridge, but tinyurls…

When you cross a normal bridge you know where you’re going to end up. I never have to worry about crossing the Mississippi and finding myself in Nigeria. With a tinyurl bridge, you just might. There’s no way to tell where it goes before you get there. KinkyPornThatWillGetYouFired.com ? Could be. Oh, and the bridge doesn’t go straight to the mystery land. No, all tinyurl bridges curve through the country of tinyurl. So, if they’re having a power outage, or an earthquake, you’re not getting there today. If they experience an economic catastrophe and cease to be then no tinyurl bridge that’s ever been built will ever make it past the once powerful, but now non-existant, country of tinyurl.com and you won’t be able to get to the desired location manually because there’s no way to know where that bridge ended up. Then, there’s the problem of Google (and its cousins). Google watches every bridge that’s built, and notes where it goes. The more bridges people build to a place, the more important that place must be. But guess what? When you use a tinyurl bridge no-one can see where that bridge goes. So that place you want to spread the word about? You’re not helping it. If anyone is getting any Google-juice out of the process it’s Tinyurl.com, but I suspect the Google geeks know better than to count those urls.

Then there’s the question of longevity. Not only shouldn’t you count on tinyurl.com and it’s cousins staying around, you should count on them going away. Almost all of them are totally free services with no advertising that just cost their owners money. The more you use it, the more bandwidth they consume, and more disk space they need. No, you should definitely count on these sites going away. It’s just a matter of time. Sure, as long as there’s a need another one will probably pop up to take it’s place, but all the millions of urls that used the old one will break when it goes away.

But, what about those old fashioned long urls? When I give someone the url to this page http://weblog.masukomi.org/2009/12/27/why-tinyurl-co…n-the-internet It not only gets them to the post but it also gives them some additional information. They can tell for example that it’s from my blog ( weblog.masukomi.org ) and not some porn site. In my urls (and many other blog URLs) there’s also an indication of when it was written ( 2009/12/27 ). This is especially useful when you need current information not something that was written five years ago. You can also tell if it’s something you’ve already seen. And last, but not least, the end of the URL ( why-tinyurl-co…n-the-internet ) gives you a hint at what the article’s about.

But what about Twitter?

Yeah, I hear you. It’s easy enough to stop using URL shorteners in everything else, especially since modern e-mail clients are generally pretty good about not breaking up urls, but you need to include URLs in your tweets from time-to-time. There are two simple simple solutions and both are really easy to implement. The only problem is that Twitter has to do it.

It’s probably safe to say that Twitter’s not going to give up the 140 character limit even when all phones have gone beyond that limit for texting. Those 140 characters have become part of Twitter’s ethos. If the limit was extended much it would transform what what Twitter is and how it’s used. So, what are these solutions?

The best would be if Twitter were to set up their own tinyurl clone. [Update: they have now] There are plenty of free tinyurl implementations out there that are easy to install. You’d still have the downside of not being able to tell where the url lead to, and you wouldn’t be able to get there if Twitter was down, and if twitter went out of business they’d all stop working BUT, except for not seeing where you’re going these are all ok because if Twitter was down you wouldn’t see the tinyurl in the first place, and if Twitter went out of business the site would go away, and take all those now non-functional links with it.

If Twitter were to simply not count any characters contained in an url it would solve the problem on the web, and only require a minor code change and a simple database update. It has the downside that older phones would have trouble with the extra length and would need an url shortener, of course, if your phone is so old it can’t handle more than 140 characters then odds are you’re not going to be clicking on any links that come in a Tweet anyway.

While neither of these are hard they do both have a financial impact on a company that seems incapable of figuring out how to make any money. Storing those few extra characters may not seem like much but I assure you that they add up, and the servers and hard drives required to make them keep working under a Twitter level of load (and nigh-constant hard drive failure) would not be cheap. But, there’s a good reason for Twitter to go through the effort of fixing these. Over time the URL shortening sites will die out, and as they do millions of links in old tweets will start to break, and that makes twitter look bad. How much will it suck when most all of the links in old tweets stop working and people stop bothering or wanting to click on links in tweets because they’re so frequently broken?

Summary:

In summary, Tinyurl.com and it’s cousins are bad because:

  • You can’t see where the URL takes you
  • The URL won’t work if the tinyurl is down temporarily
  • The URL will break permanently when (not if) tinyurl ceases to be.
  • It takes longer to get to the site because you have to first detour through the Tinyurl servers (literally adding thousands, sometimes tens of thousands, of miles to every request).
  • You’re not helping promote the page you’re trying to spread the word about because Google can’t tell what you’re linking to.

Please note that it’s not tinyurl.com that’s specifically the problem. They’re just the most popular one. ALL of the URL shortening sites have these same problems.