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Tr.im, one of the many services that allows web surfers to shorten URLs, announced that it would close its doors yesterday. In the interim, a debate about the utility of shorteners and how dangerous it is to depend on these tiny companies that may or may not exist in a year has arisen.
It's the nature of the online world that tech start ups come and go. But shorteners have become an important part of the social web. And one thing seems clear. Tr.im's demise is great for competitor bit.ly.
In the space constrained ecosphere of Twitter, shortened URLs are increasingly relied upon for sharing information. Long URLs can be squeezed to fit into 140 characters with a service like bit.ly or tiryurl. And because Twitter has taken to using bit.ly as its default service, it currently dominates the marketplace.
According to Tweetmeme stats, bit.ly makes up 79.6% of the short URLs on Twitter. TinyURL (which used to be Twitter's default) has 13.75% of the market. is.gd has 2.47%, ow.ly 2.26% and FriendFeed’s ff.im has 1.92%.
tr.im blamed Twitter's favoritism of bit.ly as a contributing factor to its demise. The company included this in its discontinuation of service notice:
"There is no way for us to monetize URL shortening -- users won't pay for it -- and we just can't
justify further development since Twitter has all but anointed bit.ly the market winner.
There is simply no point for us to continue operating tr.im, and pay for its upkeep."
The main concern now is what happens to all of tr.im's links and data. The company has promised to keep all the URLs up and running until the end of the year. It is currently trying to sell its assets at the moment. Which is part of why it has refused the offer made by bit.ly today.
URL shorteners are problematic for many reasons. For starters, it's impossible to know where they are linking and they can contribute to the spread of malware. But their ease of use keeps growing their popularity. And the companies keep track of all of the information that is shared through shortening, which will be very valuable soon.
As Twitter’s default shortener, Bit.ly collects about 2 million new URLs per day — 100 times the number of URLs submitted to Digg. Bit.ly tracks 150 million clicks per week on its shortened URLs
According to VentureBeat, "Bit.ly claims its collected data can tell not only what’s popular right this second, but what’s about to blow up huge."
But if these services shutter, all of that info could disappear. If tr.im doesn't find a buyer, for instance, there is a chance that all of the company's information could disappear entirely, a prospect which is making people very nervous about shorteners in general.
To combat that problem, bit.ly created a "wayback machine-like" tool to archive all the URLs that get shortened online back in April. Other companies have not signed on because they didn't want to contribute to bit.ly's already cemented dominance over the marketplace.
Today, the company offered to host all of tr.im's URLs. tr.im refused the offer because they are still trying to make some money off of their technology. But regardless of whether bit.ly gets a hold on tr.im's data, they will be further cemented as the dominant player in the space after today.
If they can make some progress with their backup program, they'll be even further along. tr.im and other shorteners may have better names and more functionality. But in the ephemeral space of the social web, it's hard to ignore reliability. Merely being chosen as Twitter's default has created their current dominance. And short of creating their own ways to clip URLs, businesses are going to go with the company they think will be around the longest.
Short of people halting the usage of shorteners entirely, the main problem for bit.ly going forward will be the limited link options that these short addresses can provide. When they cycle through every permutation that can fit within 10-15 characters, they will have to come up with a new root address. But if the company is established as the dominant player, and convinces web surfers that it is the most stable shortener out there, that's a bridge that can be crossed later.