What’s up with the tiny nonsense links on Twitter?

photo credit: Gideon Tsang

If you spend any time on Twitter, you’ve likely noticed most people post links using a very short string of seemingly nonsense letters.  If you’ve wondered why people do that–or how you can do it yourself, you are in the right place.  One of the goals of this blog is to help you catch-up on some of the (relatively) new tools the internet has to offer.   (Remember when we talked about RSS?)  In that same spirit, today we are covering link shorteners.

Lots of websites offer the service, but the basic concept is the same.  You enter your long link and the website generates  a link that redirects back to the link you entered.  The main value of these links is fairly obvious–they are shorter.  On Twitter, where you only have 140 characters to make your point, a very short link is a very good thing.  In plain text e-mail, or other places where you have limited ability to format your links, a shortened link can clean up the look of your message and avoid losing part of the link to a line break.  If you use the right service, these links can even help you track how many people click on your link and who else is sharing the same information.

How to shorten your own links

Several websites offer a link shortening service, but as a beginner, I suggest you use http://bit.ly.  It’s  popular (which means it probably won’t go away anytime soon),  it’s free and easy to use,  and it offers link tracking.*

Here’s what you do:

  • Highlight and copy the URL you want to shorten (from the address bar at the top of the page)
  • go to http://bit.ly (note, no www and no .com)
  • paste the URL into the large box labeled:  “Enter your long link or file here:”
  • Click  “shorten.”
  • copy the newly created link and paste it where you would have normally used the regular link.

Bonus:  Link Tracking

If you are interested in how often your links are being clicked, and who else is sharing the content you share (and you should be), don’t stop with just creating shorter links.  Take 30 seconds to create a free bit.ly account and start tracking link statistics.  (Bit.ly will track links you create without an account, but you will only be able to access the stats on the computer you used to create them.)

To create an account, click “sign up” in the upper right-hand corner of the page, pick a user name, enter your e-mail address and pick a password.  If you use Twitter it’s also helpful (but not required) to connect your Twitter account.

After you create links they will show up in a list beneath the shorten bar (your history).  Click on the Info button below the link for detailed information on the number of times your link has been clicked, the total number of bit.ly links pointing to the linked page, what people are saying about the link on Twitter, etc.

When not to use bit.ly links

Once you start using Bit.ly you may be tempted to shorten all your links all the time–all that extra information about click-throughs can be addictive.  Please avoid this temptation–especially under the following circumstances:

When you post a link to an outside news site

In this post, I recommended you post links to your blog on news aggregators like Idealist News and Association Jam.  When you do so, do not use a bit.ly link.  Idealist News/Reddit, specifically list using any service that masks a link’s destination as a “don’t” on the redditquite page.  This is primary to keep spammers from gaming the system and tricking people into clicking onto their sites.  I know you are not a spammer–but the best way to keep it that way is to avoid spammer-like behavior.

To trick people

Some of the link shortening services list “hiding your affiliate link” as one of the benefits of  using the service.  Not a good idea.  Even if we set aside the intrinsic value of being transparent with your people, most interpretations of the new FTC laws indicate that it is not only illegal to purposefully hide your affiliate links,  but you must also take steps to  clearly disclose them.

In any case, if you are using a bit.ly link in hopes more people will click if they don’t know where the link leads, you are wrong on many levels.

Your turn

Was this information about bit.ly helpful?  Too basic?  Too advanced?  Is there anything else you’d like to see covered under “Internet Basics?”  As always, let me know in the comments!

If  this post was helpful, please sign up for e-mail updates at the top of the page, or add this blog to your RSS feed .

*For an impressive overview of available link shortening services and the pros and cons of each, check out Danny Sullivan’s in-depth review of services on Search Engine Land.

7 thoughts on “What’s up with the tiny nonsense links on Twitter?

  1. I enjoy your advice on Internet Basics very much and at this point would have to admit that most anything concerning the internet is a bit advanced.

    I am not a nonprofit, just applaud the philosophy and fortitude behind nonprofits. Am currently looking to work within a nonprofit though I am semi retired.

    I enjoy your generosity in offering basics and support to all active nonprofit bloggers and others like me who find the internet a constant learning experience.

    • Thanks Sally–I’m glad it was helpful, and I’m so glad you stopped by and said hello. I love what you are doing at SpeakArtLoud. I sometimes visit your website just to bask in the possibilities 🙂

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