It is said that necessity is the mother of all invention, and that's certainly true of URL shortening services. The rise of the status update means that there's no room for an extraneous character, and that has in turn led to the rise of URL shortening services that make sure the links shared in status updates don't take up any more room than needed.
As these services have grown in popularity, it's not uncommon to see shortened URLs used in places where there's really no need for them, from blog comments to emails.
But URL shorteners aren't perfect. There are security risks that arise with their use, and there's no guarantee that the link you create today will work for all eternity. Now, there might be another reason to think twice before using a URL shortening service: they're often a performance impediment.
That's according to web monitoring company WatchMouse, which took a look at the uptime and performance of a variety of URL shorteners ranging from independent URL shortening powerhouse bit.ly to the YouTube-operated youtu.be. Of the 14 services tested from WatchMouse's 44 global monitoring locations, only two (goo.gl and twt.tl) had uptime of 100% during the testing period, and 12 of them added half a second or more to page load time. Facebook's URL shortener, fb.me, added a whopping 2+ seconds to the total page load time.
A couple of interesting findings:
- International users often get the short end of the stick (no pun intended). WatchMouse says that "only a few of the URL shorteners optimized their name servers (DNS) for international use".
- You don't always get what you pay for. bit.ly's paid service, bitly.pro, offers features that aren't available to users of bit.ly gratis but WatchMouse actually discovered that bitly.pro is slower than the free version.
Obviously, it shouldn't come as a surprise to publishers that putting a URL shortener between users and a website is liable to decrease how quickly they get to their final destination, and may increase the frequency at which users are not being able to get to there at all.
But I do think many publishers underestimate just how important a half a second can be, or what a few fractions of a percent of additional downtime can mean to user acquisition or revenue. Unfortunately, the big problem here is that publishers can't stop users from linking to their websites using URL shorteners. Even for those publishers who roll their own URL shorteners, there's no way to ensure that users link to them using it.
The cat is out of the bag and all publishers can hope for is that URL shortening services will get better over time, and that the best will rise to the top.
Photo credit: chrisdlugosz via Flickr.