URL shorteners are dead. Long live URL shorteners!


Last week, 364 days after first announcing their t.co link wrapping service, Twitter started rolling out automatic URL shortening on Twitter.com. URL shorteners existed long before Twitter and will continue to exist, but this move by Twitter means the need to shrink links will no longer be mainstream in the way it has become over the last few years.

While this may be the end of consumer-facing URL shorteners as we know them, it’s a key part of Twitter’s efforts to become more approachable to mainstream users and build a bigger, more engaged audience. Achieving those goals will make Twitter even more valuable to publishers and marketers, for whom it will be that much more important to understand how Twitter drives traffic and ultimately revenues. URL shortening has always been the wrong way to think about tracking the value created by sharing. Social media marketing can and should be driven by real performance, not proxies like followers and clicks. And this move by Twitter helps move the conversation in that direction.

Why t.co is essential to Twitter, and what it means for everyone else

There are 3 reasons that wrapping every link on Twitter in t.co is an essential part of their strategy to become a media company:

  1. Twitter needs more mainstream users engaging, not just consuming, and making them have to use a 3rd-party URL shortener to share links is unnecessary friction around the most valuable behavior in the Twitter user experience.
  2. The only way for Twitter to protect users from malicious and offensive links is to get between the click and the destination page. If lots of people are getting hacked, phished, or otherwise scammed from clicking on links in Twitter, they’ll stop clicking.
  3. The reason Twitter doesn’t talk about is that they need the data. Facebook and Google collect information on every click out from their sites, but before t.co Twitter knew nothing about where they were sending their users. Knowing not just what content is being shared but also knowing what content is being clicked is essential to Twitter’s ability to serve their marketer customers in the long-term.

So, the future for links on Twitter is clear. All links shared on Twitter will be wrapped in a 19 character t.co URL, which means there’s no more need to shorten links before sharing them. And thanks to tweet entities, the unwrapped URL will be displayed in the Tweet (see image), so people will know what they’re clicking on.

Beyond shortening: how to get actionable data from social media

With link length and branding no longer a factor, the only reason to use any kind of redirect links (which is what ‘short links’ are) on Twitter is data. And frankly, URL shorteners are fundamentally limited in how useful the data they track can be. That’s why, despite being best known for starting the vanity URL shortener craze (we’re sorry ;-) ), awe.sm has never been about making links smaller. Our goal from the start has been to help our customers understand not just what happens in social media but why it happens and how they can create more value from that knowledge.

awe.sm is designed to be more analogous to an ad-server or the way that email marketing software tracks opens and click-throughs, it’s just built for social media (hence the Twitter-friendly tracking links). The core of what sets us apart from a conventional URL shortener is that, in order to make their links as short as possible, they collapse down to always give you the same short link for a given long link (or “canonical URL” in geek speak). This means that if, for example, you wanted to see how tweeting the same thing at different times of day works, you won’t be able to know for sure what traffic was driven by which tweet because all your tweets will have the same link. Whereas, just like an ad-server tracks every impression individually and email marketing software tracks every recipient individually, awe.sm tracks every share individually. This enables our customers to find patterns of success in their sharing activity based on factors like when something is shared, how it is shared, and who shares it, not just the single dimension of what is being shared (i.e. the canonical URL).

Every data-driven marketer knows that proper attribution is the key to understanding and optimizing performance. Our approach of tracking each share action individually and tagging those actions with information about the context of the share provides the ability to understand the truly unique dynamics of social media. But any attribution is only as good as the results to which you tie it. That’s why awe.sm integrates with web analytics solutions like Google Analytics and Omniture to add a social attribution layer to your existing visit, pageview, and goal tracking and it’s why we have also recently added our own conversion tracking abilities to build the entire social funnel from clicks to pageviews to goals and even revenues.

Social data == Big Data

At this point you might be saying to yourself, “Ok, I get it. awe.sm isn’t a URL shortener, it’s a social analytics product.” But for us, analytics is just the tip of the iceberg. We fundamentally believe that the real value of social data doesn’t lie in generating reports for a human to analyze and then figure out what should be done. When you’re tracking every share action, the data are too dynamic and voluminous to make sense of in a spreadsheet — there’s no person sitting behind the AdWords algorithm looking at what gets clicked on and making the decision to serve more of those ads, and harnessing social data should be no different. Our goal with awe.sm is to provide social data as a platform on which others can build, whether that’s determining the authority of Plancast users based on how many attendances they drive, helping companies like BigDoor and OneTrueFan offer turn-key game dynamics around sharing, or enabling ecommerce platforms like Topspin and Storenvy to empower their merchants to identify and engage with their most valuable customers.

Our belief that there are more interesting uses for social data than we could possibly build ourselves is the reason that everything we do is built on top of our own powerful APIs. This approach allows us to power components of other applications, integrate with 3rd-party tools, and support effectively limitless customization to deliver sharing data in the most valuable ways to our customers’ businesses.

The ROI of social media is real and it can be measured

“To put it bluntly, if you’re focusing on fans and followers, then you’re almost certainly doing it wrong.”
Nate Elliot, Forrester

The bottom line is you shouldn’t listen to anyone who tells you that you can’t track social media the way you track your other outbound marketing channels like paid search, graphical media, and email marketing. Yes, social is different. It’s a word-of-mouth superconductor driven by human dynamics that are as powerful as they are complex. But in the end, the same core methodologies of connecting the results that matter to your business with the actions that drove them can and should be applied.

If you’re interested in learning more about how awe.sm can help your business create more value from social, please drop us a line to questions@awe.sm or just click here to chat with someone from our team right here.

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8 Responses to URL shorteners are dead. Long live URL shorteners!

  1. Eric Boggs says:

    Hey there, awe.sm! I’m Eric Boggs – founder/CEO at http://argylesocial.com, your friendly competitor based in Durham, NC.

    We’ve been beating this drum for quite a while – URL redirection is the gateway to a goldmine of valuable data for marketers. It is great to have another industry leader chime in. And it is equally great to know that we’re not the only voice screaming “conversion attribution!” in the social media marketing wilderness!

    If you’d like to read our similar treatise on the matter, you can download it here: http://ar.gy/roi

    Keep up the good work. Give us a shout the next time you find yourself in Durham, NC.


  2. Great piece – thanks for posting. Would love to have a conversation sometime – send me an email.

  3. WayneB says:

    Maybe Twitter should remove the ridiculous 140 character limit since almost nobody tweets over SMS!!

  4. Josh White says:

    Very interesting, thanks. Why can’t there be a really short link say click “here”, and all the code is hidden behind the “here”, this would free up valuable space in a tweet?

  5. Howard Camp says:

    I wish people would stop with the “xyz is dead, long live xyz” thing. It’s so overused and has long lost any effect it ever had.

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  7. 40deuce says:

    Thanks for addressing this issue, as I’ve been struggling with it for a while. Even more so now that Twitter has bought Tweetdeck. I’m a big bit.ly user (no offence) because it gives me a good look at stats on links I’m sharing and even more importantly, because I was able to link my account right into my Tweetdeck making shortening links even easier.
    Since Twitter’s acquisition of Tweetdeck though I’ve wondered what’s going to happen to that bit.ly integration. Since Twitter has their own short URL service, will they just replace all the other ones that were available to use in Tweetdeck? Because as far as I know, and plese correct me if I’m wrong, Twitter doesn’t let me see stats on those t.co links. The stats is the best part of using something like bit.ly (or awe.sm). It helps me know which of my links are liked more, what time of day works best to tweet important links, etc. With the loss of this ability it becomes like walking in a desert during a sandstorm.
    Coming from a company that deals with data, I know the importance of this to not only me, but all of our customers as well, and the loss of a service like this will be met by a huge backlash of marketers and communications professionals who live for this type of data.

    Sheldon, community manager for Sysomos

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