Thursday, February 24, 2011

Survey Results: Preferred URL shortening service

A week ago I invited a few tech-savvy friends to participate in a quick survey on URL shortening services. I'd like to summarize the results of the survey and offer some comments based on what I learned from this experiment.

Executive summary: URL shortening services are proliferating rapidly. These services are meeting a growing demand in the marketplace. People who share links really need short, unbreakable links that don't break the 140 character Twitter constraint. As would be the case in any other market with a glut of suppliers, it's a very good idea for the consumer to know what they want, compare options, and read the fine print.

Here's a quick backstory explaining my interest and motive. Recently, I scanned my Twitter traffic and counted 10 different URL shortening services in use. By "shortening services" I am not talking about URLs generated internally by websites such as yfrog, twitpic, or plixi when you publish a photo from a smartphone to a blog or tweet. I am referring only to 3rd party service providers such 9-year old TinyURL and all of its competitors proliferating of late.

Have a look at my quick & dirty count of providers. This list is sorted by instance then alpha:

      Site / Count

  • bit.ly / 19
  • fb.me / 7
  • goo.gl / 7
  • tinyurl / 7
  • ow.ly / 5
  • 3.ly / 1
  • cot.ag / 1
  • eepurl / 1
  • su.pr / 1
  • wp.me / 1


This burgeoning variety, combined with the proliferation of users (I needed to scan only 200 or so tweets to find 50 using shortened URLs), plus the fact that upstart bit.ly has surpassed the original tinyurl nearly 3:1 made me curious: Do people think one service provider is superior, and if so, why? TinyURL shortens your link. Newcomer bit.ly made a name for itself by offering tracking statistics to customers and quickly captured a large chunk of the market. Most of the other newcomers are also trackers as well as shorteners. In other words, bit.ly is the one to beat now, not TinyURL.

Perhaps I am easily amused, but if you wonder whether this passes for a burning issue, do this: Go to your Twitter home page. Type in "#URL shortener" as a search term. See if you don't get 100 hits or more that are less than 24 hours old. This is a hot issue, and I am asking this question and sharing the results as part of my attempt to keep you and me on the right side of the Digital Divide.

I created a simple, 3 question survey on Survey Monkey and sent links via Twitter, email, and from the blog via Facebook. The survey attracted attracted about 20 total participants. I am pleased with a nearly 80% response rate with ZERO pesky reminders (don't you HATE those nag-notes?). I got 8 direct responses on the survey itself and additional notes from a number of friends who do not use URL shorteners, or were not familiar enough with the URL shortener services to comment and simply wanted to see the results. Fair enough!  And I did not hear anything from a few folks, and that's fair enough, too.

Here are the questions, responses, and results:

1. Please select your preferred URL shortening service. If you use more than one, please select the one you use most often. If you don't see your favorite, please write it in the comments.

Of the 10 services I found in my scan of Twitter, four split the votes evenly. In alpabetical order, they are: bit.ly, eepurl, ow.ly and tinyurl. 

None of the services in this very small sample had a decisive advantage.  One respondent suggested an unlisted choice: chop.ws. However, the respondent who suggested chop.ws went to the trouble of providing the service's web site and a list of features that made a very convincing case for the superiority of this service. 

2. Which response most closely describes how you started using your current URL shortening service?

There were two responses:  

  • Noticed a friend using it, realized how helpful it is, and just used the same one; or 
  • Compared the features of two or more services and made a selection. 

Both responses got the same number of votes. Early adopters often start using a service because they see a friend using it. Late adopters often prefer to wait until more options are available. Again, this survey reached a very small sample, and no conclusive insights can be drawn from the split vote on this question.

3. Please think about the features of your favorite URL shortening service. Rank each of the following attributes in terms of importance to you. If the feature is "essential," you use it frequently, or it factored heavily in your selection.

Here I offered 7 responses and a 4-point importance scale:  Essential, Helpful, Not significant, or Not applicable. The responses are shown in descending order of the percentage of Essential votes:


  • Translates unwieldy URL into a manageable one using tools available on the homepage--80%
  • The link never expires and will not break--60%
  • Exposes its data via an Application Programming Interface (API), so developers can edit the program--50% 
  • Does not require customers to create an account to use the service--40%
  • Provides customers with analysis on how many hits the link generated, and the sources of these hits--33%
  • The link is customizable, i.e., you can edit the random text and create a custom link--20%
  • Offers a fee-for-service model for heavy users--0%

The first two responses could really be considered screening criteria. After all, who would use a URL shortening service that did not do those things? No one, that's who! 

Personally, I place a high value on the open-source response. I am a fan of Linux and Android and I like the idea of a distributed network of programmers working to improve a shared product. Challenger bit.ly surpassed TinyURL by touting its API. 

One of the respondents pointed out the lack of a response option for security-related issues. A lesson learned for me was that I did not even consider how important security is until I realized that the services can track which sites customers are visiting as well as providing information about who is following your links. I have no way of knowing how relatively important privacy and information security responses would have been, but I believe they would have scored high if I had asked.

Other Emerging Issues

It's also worth mentioning three other issues I was not aware of before crafting the survey. 

1. One of the other issues is that of affiliate commissions. Read these tweets from among the hits to my "#URL shortener" search: 


  • Use our free URL shortening service to earn you easy affiliate commissions! http://eCa.sh/uJHS 
  • Use our free URL shortening service to earn you easy affiliate commissions! http://tinyurl.com/yzbu6pu  
  • Use our free URL shortening service to earn you easy affiliate commissions! http://bit.ly/4OmLTO 
  • Earn money for each visitor to your shortened links with adf.ly! Use a URL shortening service that pays.   

Notice that suppliers are moving into the marketplace with options that offer features the original TinyURL did not even hint at, such as a chance to make money from click-through traffic off of your links. Notice also that TinyURL is now also offering this "opportunity." Sites eCa.sh and adf.ly are new. "e-Cash" and "ad fly"?

2. The second unexpected feature is "automatic URL shortening." Honestly, I do not even know what that means.


  • automatic URL shortening and auto character extension with deck.ly 

3. Finally, I found many references to creating short URLs and tracking them yourself, on your own computer. This involves downloading someone else's software (or writing your own) and using your PC ans a server. 


  • Make Your Own URL Shortening Service http://lifehac.kr/gFDGwA 
  • How to setup your own private URL shortening service http://bassett.in/14 
  • How to Setup your own URL Shortening Service with Google Apps http://dsgnr.ly/gJb1En 

"Life hacker"? Did you see that? What is up with a name like that? Is this something I want to get involved with? I do not even know what these words mean. I did follow the bassett link and stopped short of downloading their software on my PC. Something about the lack of security spooked me.

Conclusion
I feel like I learned a lot in this experiment, and I hope respondents, other participants, and readers have benefited, too. I would like to keep up with technology, but when it comes to URL shortening, I remain a neophyte. I just learned about URL shortening and now there are sites for URL shortening, sharing, tracking, affiliating, and hacking. All I can say is there's a lot I do not understand (yet).