URL Shorteners: How They Work And Why Marketers Should Use Them
URL shorteners are web services that transform long Uniform Resource Locators (URLs) into shorter, more manageable versions. They work by generating a unique, shortened URL that, when clicked or entered into a web browser, redirects the user to the original, longer URL.
If you wish to do a great job with attribution and a better understanding of your marketing efforts, utilizing campaign query strings with your URLs is a must. For many of our clients, we incorporate both analytics campaign tracking and the actual unique identifier of the subscriber so that we can both attribute any activity back to that prospect or customer.
URL Shortener Features
URL shortening services online come with various features that make them useful and convenient for users. Some of the common features include:
- URL Shortening: The core functionality of these services is to shorten long URLs into compact, manageable versions that are easier to share and remember.
- Custom Aliases: Some URL shorteners allow users to create custom aliases for their shortened URLs, making them more memorable, relevant, or branded.
- Link Tracking and Analytics: Many URL shorteners provide users with analytics and click data, such as the number of clicks, the geographical location of users, the devices and browsers used, and other valuable insights.
- QR Code Generation: Some services automatically generate QR codes for shortened URLs, making it easy to share the link in print or other media where QR codes are scannable.
- Expiration and Password Protection: Some URL shorteners offer advanced features like setting an expiration date for the shortened URL or password-protecting the link to ensure only authorized users can access the destination.
- Bulk URL Shortening: Some services allow users to shorten multiple URLs at once, which can be helpful for managing and sharing large sets of links.
- Integrations: Many URL shorteners offer seamless integration with social media platforms and other online services, allowing users to share shortened links directly from the URL shortening service.
- API Access: Some URL shortening services provide API access, enabling developers to integrate the service into their own applications, websites, or tools.
- Link Management: Many services offer link management features, such as organizing shortened URLs into folders, tagging, or adding notes to keep track of links easily.
- Branded Domains: Some premium URL shorteners allow users to use their own custom domain for the shortened links, reinforcing brand recognition and trust.
Popular URL Shorteners
Here is a list of some popular URL shortening services and their respective URLs. Please note that these services may change or be updated over time, and some may offer additional features for premium users.
- Bitly – a widely used URL shortening service that offers features like custom branded domains, detailed analytics, link management, and integrations with various third-party tools. Bitly has a free plan and premium plans for additional features.
- Short.io – a user-friendly URL shortening service offering custom domains, link management, detailed analytics, bulk shortening, and API access. It also provides team collaboration features and integrations with popular platforms. Short.io has a free plan and various paid plans.
- TinyURL – a simple and popular URL shortening service that has been around since 2002. It allows users to create custom aliases for shortened URLs. The service is free to use but does not offer analytics or advanced features.
- Rebrandly – a URL shortening service that focuses on branded links, allowing users to create custom short URLs with their own domain names. It offers features like link management, analytics, API access, and integrations with other platforms. Rebrandly has both free and paid plans.
- T.ly – a URL shortening service that offers a simple interface for creating shortened URLs. It provides features like custom aliases, link expiration, password protection, and basic analytics. T.ly has a free plan with limited features and premium plans for advanced features.
- T2M – a comprehensive URL shortening service offering features like custom domains, QR code generation, unlimited redirects, detailed analytics, and API access. It provides a free plan with basic features and various paid plans for additional functionalities.
- BLINK – a URL shortening service designed for businesses and enterprises. It provides features like branded short URLs, link management, detailed analytics, and integrations with various platforms. BL.INK offers a free plan with limited features and several paid plans for advanced options.
- Yourls – a self-hosted, open-source URL shortening service that allows users to create and manage their own custom URL shorteners. It provides features like link management, custom domain usage, and basic analytics.
- is.gd – a straightforward and free URL shortening service that allows users to create short URLs with custom aliases. It offers a simple interface without advanced features like analytics or custom domains.
- AdF.ly – a unique URL shortening service that also allows users to monetize their links through ad revenue. When users click on an AdF.ly link, they are shown a brief advertisement before being redirected to the original URL. It provides features like link management, analytics, and a referral program.
URL Shorteners and QR Codes
We send direct mail campaigns with a unique QR code that incorporates the subscriber information so that we can alert the sales or marketing team of anyone who scanned the QR code to get additional information. I’ll use a made-up URL for this example:
That URL is 34 characters. If I build a querystring for my campaign tracking, that URL is now 151 characters:
And If add the unique identifier for the recipient, it expands further to 171 characters:
How Does A URL Shortener Work?
Here’s a step-by-step explanation of how URL shorteners work:
- The user inputs a long URL into the URL shortening service.
- The service generates a unique key, usually consisting of a combination of letters and numbers (eg. g/3i3RaCpvUox using our example below.
- The shortening service combines its own domain with the unique key to create a shortened URL (eg. https://qr.page/g/3i3RaCpvUox ).
- The shortened URL is distributed.
- When someone clicks on the shortened URL, the user actually lands on the domain of the shortened URL (eg. https://qr.page )
- The path of the shortened URL (eg. g/3i3RaCpvUox) is then looked up in the database where the long URL is recorded.
- The service then redirects the user to the original, long URL.
Why Use A URL Shortener
Businesses use URL shorteners for various reasons:
- Space saving: Shortened URLs take up less space, making them ideal for sharing on platforms with character limits, such as Twitter. With non-alphanumeric symbols in URLs, URLs may also be inadvertently broken into multiple lines by platforms when they’re very long.
- Aesthetics: Long URLs can be unsightly and difficult to remember, while short URLs look cleaner and are easier to share.
- Tracking and analytics: Many URL shorteners provide statistics on the number of clicks, the geographical location of users, and other data, which can help users understand the reach of their shared content.
- Customization: Some URL shortening services allow users to customize the shortened URL with a custom alias, making it more memorable or relevant to the content being shared.
- Masking: Shortened URLs can help obscure the true destination of a link, which can be useful for hiding campaign tracking data, affiliate links, unique identifiers, or other data you don’t wish to expose.
- Modifying URLs: By using a shortened URL that looks up a URL in a database, you can update the URL in the future. This is incredibly helpful if you have distributed print pieces with QR Codes and need to update their destination URLs.
- QR Code Size: QR codes swell in size and complexity with the number of characters in the URL. If I utilize a URL shortener with a QR Code Generator, the link above can be updated to:
Drawbacks To URL Shortening
Shortened URLs can be used to disguise malicious websites, potentially increasing the risk of phishing attacks or malware distribution. Some users may bypass clicking on a link that they don’t recognize, so you may wish to explain to your users that you’re incorporating a URL shortener.
Additionally, if a URL shortening service goes offline or shuts down, the shortened links might no longer work, leading to broken links and lost access to the original content.
Build or Host Your Own URL Shortener
It’s important to note that companies don’t have to use a third-party URL shortener. If they purchase their own short domain, they program a URL shortener very easily into their site. One of the nice things about doing this is that you can have a unique short domain that’s associated with your brand that no one else can use.
You’ll find a ton of shared, open-source URL shortener code on sites like Github. One of the more popular ones is Polr.