As Twitter makes the transition from profitless startup to revenue-generating business, the massive number of links that are shared on its service on a daily basis represent valuable currency. Given this, Twitter naturally wants to exert more control of those links.

This summer, it will do just that when it finally rolls out its own link shortening service that wraps all links shared through Twitter.com and third party clients using the company’s t.co shortener.

For users, tweeting long links via the Twitter website will become less painful, as URLs can be shortened from within the tweet box. And because Twitter will be able to track links to a much greater extent than it can now, it says that it will be able to blacklist links that are reported as being abusive.

But the real beneficiary of Twitter’s move is, of course, Twitter. By making sure that all links shared on Twitter go through its shortener, Twitter will be able to gather an enormous amount of data that it hopes will be of significant commercial value. To its credit, Twitter is up front about this:

In addition to a better user experience and increased safety, routing links
through this service will eventually contribute to the metrics behind our
Promoted Tweets platform and provide an important quality signal for our
Resonance algorithm—the way we determine if a Tweet is relevant and interesting
to users. We are also looking to provide services that make use of this data, an
example would be analytics within our eventual commercial accounts service.

While it’s understandable that Twitter wants to control links, there are a few potential problems:

  • Performance. Any service that redirects links reduces the speed at which users
    can get to their intended destination, even if only by a small fraction
    of a second. Given that there are probably a significant number of Twitter users who won’t shell out for a commercial account but who find existing shortening services like Bit.ly to be the easiest way to keep track of metrics such as clicks, we might see a substantial number of links that go through two shorteners, which is hardly ideal for performance.

    Finally, Twitter’s track record when it comes to performance isn’t the best in the world. If the fail whale invades t.co, watch out.

  • Reliability. Routing every link shared on Twitter through a single shortening service obviously creates a single point of failure. And if there’s ever a data loss related to the shortening service, affected links could be rendered entirely useless.
  • Privacy. With its control of links, Twitter will be able to collect a lot of data about users, and some of that data will raise privacy implications that for the most part don’t currently exist. While Twitter certainly won’t be competing with Facebook anytime soon for the dubious title of ‘Biggest Online Privacy Target‘, Twitter should not dismiss the possibility that it too could come under scrutiny in this arena.
  • SEO. Conceivably, Twitter could make it more difficult for search engines to follow links shared on Twitter. While it’s hard to imagine Twitter blocking search engines, it could use its ability to do so as a means to protect the data deals it currently has in place with some of them, or to encourage search engines that aren’t paying customers to pay up.

By trying to seize control of links, Twitter is arguably making its biggest consumer-facing change. It will be interesting to see if it can pull it off with less fanfare than some of the other major players in the social networking space.

Photo credit: JoshSemans via Flickr.