Tag Archives: link shorteners

How Link Shorteners Leave Holes in Your Social Media

Another problem I’ve noticed in my Twitter archive: Lots of URL shorteners and image hosts have shut down or purged their archives.

Sure, bit.ly and is.gd and tinyurl and ow.ly are still around. But in the days before t.co, I used a lot of different Twitter apps that used different shorteners or image hosts.

I have photos posted not just at Twitter and Twitpic, but at phodroid, mypict.me, and twitgoo. In some cases the description and date can point me to the right picture on my hard drive or on this blog (I used to import a daily digest of tweets, and I still sometimes use Twitter as a rough draft for content here). In some cases I can narrow it down to a group of photos — the 2012 partial solar eclipse, for instance.

In some cases, I have NO IDEA what the photo was:

Similarly, I linked to a lot of articles that might still exist, but the short URLs don’t point to them anymore. Services like tr.im, short.to, and awe.sm. StumbleUpon’s su.pr. In some cases a publisher set up their own shortener, and has since dropped it. Again, sometimes I can find it from here. Sometimes the description includes a quote or title that I can search for.

Oddly enough, I found most of my lost awe.sm links by looking at Del.icio.us, which apparently unwrapped the links when they imported from Twitter way back when. It’s still around and searchable. For now. (I should look into what you get from their archive.)

It’s true that these problems are biggest if you were on Twitter before they implemented their own link shortener and image hosting. But a lot of tools (Buffer, for instance) still use their own shorteners for tracking purposes, so you’re not just depending on the tool being around long enough to post your tweet, you’re depending on it to stay around for the rare person who stumbles on an old thread and wants to see what you were talking about.

And even if you didn’t start using Twitter until they hosted photos themselves, Twitter doesn’t include your photos in your archive! If you want to save your own copies in case they go the way of GeoCities or even photobucket, you’ve got to hold onto the originals or download them yourself.

Delicious, Twitter, and Linkblogging

The classic link-sharing site Delicious is still around, trying to find a niche in the new social media world. One of the things they’ve recently done is set up a way to import all links you post on Twitter. It does a historical import when you link the account, and then pulls in new tweets going forward.

It’s a cool idea, depending on how you use the sites, and they’ve made it just flexible enough that anyone who might want to do this in the first place will find a way to match their use case.

In my case, I mainly used Delicious as an additional bookmark store that I could access across browsers and accounts, though for the most part that’s been replaced by Xmarks. I haven’t used it as much for deliberate sharing, though I’ve posted the occasional link in the hopes that someone might notice it.

Anyway, I linked it up with my personal Twitter account, left the site for a few hours, then came back to see just how far back it had imported. It went back about 3 years, pulling in over 1,000 links that I’d posted to Twitter.

The Good:

  • It merges duplicates.
  • Links are backdated to the day you posted the tweet.
  • All imported links are tagged with “from twitter” (you can change this), making it easy to filter.
  • Hashtags are imported as tags.
  • The text of your tweet becomes the comment.
  • It extracts titles and thumbnail images from the links.
  • It can follow some redirectors, including Twitter’s own t.co.

The Bad:

  • It doesn’t follow all redirectors. There are an awful lot of bit.ly and is.gd links in there.
  • That also means that if I tweeted the same link twice using different link shorteners, it doesn’t resolve the duplicates.
  • A lot of those links were only of short term interest.
  • Three years is plenty of time for a redirector (or, of course, a target link) to shut down. Fortunately, it looks like I didn’t use tr.im much.
  • My blog automatically tweets links to new posts, which means every post I’ve made in the last three years is in there – the earliest with an is.gd or tinyurl link, the later ones with bit.ly. I don’t need those in my own bookmarks (with a few exceptions), and as far as sharing goes, it makes me feel spammy to plug three years’ worth of backlist at once.
  • Searching for links gives you less-functional results than simply looking at your list or filtering by tag. Not all details appear on the results page, bulk actions aren’t available, and you can’t always delete a link if you edit it from search results. This meant I couldn’t, for instance, search for “New post” or “K-Squared Ramblings,” skim the titles and bulk-delete the bookmarks to my own content.

Over the last couple of weeks I’ve been taking a few minutes here and there to go through what started as 60 pages’ worth of imported links, delete the ones I don’t want to keep and fix up the ones I do. It started out faster than my last Twitter-related cleanup project, but that’s because there were a lot of auto-posted links I could just delete without taking the time to evaluate or label them. It’s already slowing down.

I could just leave all the clutter there, but part of the point is for this to be my bookmarks-away-from-home, and it’s easier to find stuff without the extra junk.

On the plus side, between this and the broken link cleanup, I’m getting to see a bunch of old posts and photos I’d forgotten about. That’s been an interesting process.

It’s also convinced me that linkblogging round-ups really don’t belong on this blog. I still do them on Speed Force, but that’s in part because Speed Force has readers who don’t follow the social networks. (OK, let’s be honest: because Speed Force has readers.) Here, where it’s just a personal site, I’m better off sticking with the best medium for each post. That means Twitter, Facebook and Google+ for short posts (barring a few categories that I’ve got history here, like license plate spotting), the blog for longer posts, and social networks for link sharing.

New Plugin: Nice Links for Twitter Tools

Lately I’ve been linkblogging via Twitter, and using Alex King’s Twitter Tools to build a weekly digest in WordPress. The problem is that since I’m pulling the posts from Twitter, I’m stuck with Twitter’s limitations: Short descriptions, cryptic URLs, and unreadable links.

So I wrote a plugin to process the links. When Twitter Tools builds a digest, the plugin calls out to the remote site, follows redirects, retrieves the final URL and (if possible) extracts the page title. Then it replaces the cryptic-looking link with a human-readable link, transforming this:

Check out this site: http://bit.ly/9MhKVv

into this:

Check out this site: Flash: Those Who Ride the Lightning

If it can’t retrieve a title, it uses the final hostname. If it can’t connect at all, it leaves the link unchanged.

The download is here, and that’s where I’ll put future versions:
» Plugin: Twitter Tools – Nice Links.

Future

One thing I’d like to add at some point is cleaning up the title a bit. They can get really long, even without people trying to stuff keywords and descriptions in for SEO purposes. All it takes is a page title plus a site title, like this one. That’s a much more complicated problem, though, since there isn’t any sort of standard for which part of a title is the most important. I suppose I could just clip it to the first few words.

I’d also like to clean up duplicate text. Often the link title and tweet content are going to be the same, or at least overlap, especially if it’s generated by a sharing button or extension. That should be easier to check.

Why Link Length Matters

Twitter writes that link length shouldn’t matter, but the zillions of URL shortening services out there show that, for now, it does.

But why?

There are two main reasons to shorten* a link:

  • There’s a technical limit, such as SMS message length or email line width.
  • You expect people to manually enter the URL.

Right now, with Twitter messages limited to 140 characters and links forced to share that space with the rest of the post, URL shorteners are critical. But they’re working on a plan to accept longer URLs, and specifically shorten them for SMS messages. The full link will be available on the Twitter website, desktop clients, and other platforms that don’t have that hard and fast limit.

That will cut down on the demand for shorteners, but they’ll still be useful.

For one thing, there are other microblogging platforms out there like StatusNet.

For another, there’s email.

IIRC, the first URL shorteners launched because email programs often break up really long lines, including really long URLs. In plain-text messages, that leaves links not just unclickable, but inconvenient even to copy and paste, because you have to copy each line separately and paste them together. This will continue to be an issue as long as people continue to put visible URLs in email.

And then there’s the human factor. It might not be easy to remember http://is.gd/cGE8V, but it certainly takes a lot less time to write it on a scrap of paper than http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/badastronomy/2010/06/07/hard-to-port-eject-goose-eject/.

Which of those URLs would you rather type on your keyboard? Or worse, on your mobile phone?

*In this case, I mean making it really short and cryptic. There are plenty of reasons to keep links readable and sort of short.

The REAL Problem with Twitter

Forget Ashton Kutcher and Oprah, forget #unfollowfriday, forget 25 Random Evil Things about Twitter — the key problems with the social media / microblogging / broadcast IM / whatever you want to call it service boil down to two problems:

  1. It asks the wrong question
  2. It was designed around limitations of cell phone text messaging

The Wrong Question

Twitter’s prompt is not something general like “What’s on your mind?” It’s “What are you doing?” That encourages people to post things like “I’m eating lunch” or “Just got into work,” or “Posting on Twitter.” Presumably what they mean is “What are you doing that you think people would find interesting?” but of course that’s too long a prompt from a usability standpoint.

The thing is, there’s no reason to broadcast the mundane to the world. Don’t tell me “I’m eating soup.” Tell me, “Just learned that gazpacho soup is best served cold. I wonder if they eat it in space?”

Unfortunately, that means the signal-to-noise ratio can get pretty bad at times.

Outgrowing its Limitations

Twitter posts are limited to 140 characters of plain text so that the your name and comments can fit in a standard SMS message. Now, this is great if you use Twitter via text messages on your mobile phone. It’s not so great if you use Twitter on the web, or through a smartphone app like Twitterific on iPhone or Twidroid on Android, or through any of the zillions of desktop apps.

I don’t have a problem with the 140-character limit itself (it can actually be liberating in a way), though it would be nice to have some formatting options beyond all-caps and *asterisk bolding*.

The real problem is that links have to share that limit. URL-shortening services have exploded lately as people try to squeeze links into the tiniest space possible to save room for their precious text. Even if you use something as short as is.gd, just including one link means you’re down to 122 characters.

Plus URL shorteners come with a host of problems, in particular the fact that they hide the destination. That’s no big deal if the target matches the description, or if it’s a harmless prank like a Rick Roll, but it’s all too easy to disguise something malicious.

Seriously, if you got an email that said something like this:

Look at this! http://example.com/asdjh

Would you click on that link? Even if it appeared to be from someone you know? That’s just asking to get your computer infected by a virus, trojan horse or other piece of malware. Or to see something you wish you could unsee.

Better Link Sharing: Facebook

I hesitate to bring up Facebook as a good example of anything, and I know the current layout is largely reviled by its users, but they really got posting links right.

When you want to post a link to your Facebook profile, you paste in the full URL. Facebook reads the page and extracts the title, a short summary, and possible thumbnail images. Then you have the normal amount of space to write your comment. Continue reading