Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Thriving in the Digital World: the Case for bit.ly

So I just created a bit.ly account, with the intent to retire my four month old Tiny URL account. It's worth a few minutes to write about why this matters--and I hope by your comments to learn that it was worth your time to read as well.

For those who may not be aware, both Tiny URL and bit.ly are sites that offer members a free method for solving a distinctly Information Age problem, namely, how to shorten long URLs, especially when constrained to 140 characters. If you blog, Tweet, use Facebook, or even email and you've ever tried to copy and paste a typical URL, you'll appreciate the benefit these sites provide. If you've ever had to copy and paste a broken URL into your browser, you wish the sender had shortened the URL first!

Here is another example, the actual URL that points to this blog post: http://www.blogger.com/post-edit.g?blogID=5224155080292545006&postID=7078766405673461210

Of course, regular readers of this blog will have noticed that I have taken to using the blog editor's link embedding function to convert a long URL to a short text string. The same link, edited as described, is (HERE). This technique only works within the blog, though. What if I want to share the link in Facebook or Twitter?

Here's the same URL on Tiny URL: http://tinyurl.com/5ugdc93. That's 26 characters instead of 88.

And here it is again on bit.ly: http://bit.ly/f7CYy8. Down to 20 characters.

The two shortened links look similar, but there are many key differences in how the shortened link is created and turned into something useful for the customer.

Tiny Tips

  • Tiny URL does not require customers to create an account to use the service. 
  • You can translate an unwieldy, bound-to-break URL into a clever and manageable one using tools right on their home page. 
  • The link never expires and will not break
  • The link is customizable, i.e., you can edit the random text ("5ugdc93") to make you link more distinctive, as in this example:

Turn this URL:
http://www.amazon.com/Kindle-Wireless-Reading-Display-Globa lly/dp/B003FSUDM4/ref=amb_link_353259562_2?pf_rd_m=ATVPDKIK X0DER&pf_rd_s=center-10&pf_rd_r=11EYKTN682A79T370AM3&pf_rd_ t=201&pf_rd_p=1270985982&pf_rd_i=B002Y27P3M
into this TinyURL:http://tinyurl.com/KindleWireless
Which one would you rather cut and paste into your browser? That's the power of TinyURL!
  • And I agree, Tiny URL is a powerful and useful tool! But something's missing...

bit.ly bits

  • bit.ly offers all of the Tiny URL features listed above, plus...
  • bit.ly exposes its data via an Application Programming Interface (API), so developers can interact in a programmatic way with the bit.ly website. This means bit.ly uses a Linux-like open architecture model, and encourages developers to improve it.  Even though I am not a programmer, I like Linux over Microsoft, Android over Apple, and Wikipedia over Collier's.
  • bit.ly provides customers with click analysis. Not only will customers get the shortened link, but they will get feedback on how many hits the link generated, and the sources of these hits.
  • bit.ly offers a fee-for-service model for heavy users. 

Tiny URL is the first provider on the scene, and it enjoys a large share of the customer base as a result.  Meanwhile, bit.ly is a newcomer, one of many to challenge Tiny URL's early-entry advantage with a different, and in this case superior, business model. I predict bit.ly will overtake Tiny URL when customers see the benefits of switching.

Unlike Bing, Microsoft's late-entry attempt to provide a viable Internet search alternative to Google, bit.ly offers advantages that effectively differentiate it from other competing providers in the market, even those who got a significant jump on them. As you may have heard, Bing discovered the only way they could compete with Google's early-entry advantage was to copy Google's search algorithm! Details: http://cnet.co/gDK6vI. What bit.ly did was solve the problem Tiny URL identified and solved first, but bit.ly did it in a different way.

And the question is: is the difference compelling? Is it so much better that it's worth the cost of changing? And even if so, is it so much better that changing again in a few short months is unlikely?

My answer is yes, bit.ly is much better than anything else out there. What's more, it's so much better than Tiny URL that I'd be shocked if Tiny URL were ever able to retake them at some future point, so there is no benefit to keeping the Tiny URL account and waiting for them to regain the upper hand. Tiny URL did not make their code accessible, and they did nothing to prevent nimble competitors from entering the fray. They lost the way Apple is losing to Android: by holding on to the application code instead of opening it up to developers. At this point, bit.ly is gaining customers and is poised to be the 800 lb. gorilla, the shorten and share (and track) equivalent of Google, Android, Linux, and Wikipedia.

Open source wins!

These musings are just part of life in the Information Age, where staying in the right side of the Digital Divide is a full-time job in itself.