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Disadvantages of shortening URLs

Disadvantages of shortening URLs

A couple of days back, I was involved in a heated discussion with a friend. He was going on about the merits of URL shortening services. Being a man of habit, I had to take the opposing view. The result was actually quite enlightening and by the end of the highly animated argument I had managed to convince him (Yay! I won).

On this page I shall list some of the disadvantages of shortening a URL. Decreasing the number of characters in the URL may be a good idea, and at times required, for microblogging web sites like Twitter. But for all other purposes, I would not advice this practice.

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URL shortening – the disadvantages

Years ago people used URL shortening services to get a more manageable, and probably more memorable, web site address because the ones provided by free web site hosting services (Geocities, Xoom etc.) were too long and cumbersome. In recent times, however, the URL shortening services have seen a sort of revival because of the prolific usage of micro blogging on sites such as Twitter.

Disadvantages of bit.ly and other such URL shortening services

I used the bit.ly service to get a shortened URL of this page. Please take a look at the links below as I shall reference them later in the post.
Actual URL: www.webdevelopersnotes.com/blog/disadvantages-shortening-urls/
Shortened URL: bit.ly/e6dly1

Yes, decreasing the length of a web address may save you on a few characters on Twitter where the post cannot exceed 140 characters, but for all other scenarios there are some very apparent disadvantages of shortening a URL and it’s best to avoid it.

  • Shorten the URL, lose your brand: The actual address of a page on your web site starts with the domain name. This not only serves as an indicator but also helps in building and promoting your brand. If you shorten the URL, you’ll lose out on these.
  • Shortened URLs can be confusing: Though the surrounding text may be of some help, the shortened URL offers no pointer to the reader. For example, take a look at the two URLs above. While one can easily determine the contents of the page from the actual web address, the shortened URL is just a mish-mash of characters. The web page URL is not an unimportant entity… it can serve as a guide for the surfer.
  • The shortened URL is NOT easy to recall: Since the shortened URL is smaller in length people assume that it may be easier to recall than its longer counterpart. I don’t think that’s true. Again, take a look at the above URLs. Isn’t the actual URL more descriptive and easier to remember?
  • The service shuts down: Unless a business is financially viable, it will fall flat and die. It’s happened to a lot many online services; for example, Geocities which was pulled down by Yahoo some time back! So if the URL shortening service you’ve been using shuts down, all links will become non-functional.
  • The URL shortening service goes offline: Even the most popular web sites face down times. The same can happen to the shorten URL service you are using. What does that entail? All links will appear dead!
  • Shortened URLs are unsafe: As per an article on the reputed Techrepublic blog, shortened URLs can pose a risk to safe browsing habits. Also, URL shortening services face a lot of abuse and hacking attacks.

So when is it acceptable to use a shortened form of a URL?

My derision of URL shortening services should not give you the impression that they are useless. There are times when you can benefit from decreasing the length of the URL; for instance, when you are running out of characters in a Tweet. However, don’t use shortened URLs willy-nilly. On a related note, make sure the actual addresses of the web pages on your site are descriptive.

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Your comments
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  • Jeff Nygren on April 6th, 2012 6:58 pm

    Regarding the disadvantage “Shorten the URL, lose your brand”. At least some URL shortening services allow you to modify the shortened URL. Your brand can still be a part of the URL. For example:
    bit.ly/Letter4Eric

  • John on May 4th, 2012 11:58 am

    Thanks For Sharing this article regarding URL shortners. it would help many web developers.

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