URL shortening – A scary experience

Recently I embedded an URL shortener API into my photo sharing service wowoodu/pics (API = the programming interface that allows you to embed a service to your website). URL shortening is a necessary feature to make it possible for my users to send their pictures via text messages and generally to keep the URL to be shared at around 30 to 40 characters.

So I got a bit.ly developer account and embedded an automatic shortening script into wowoodu/pics. At first this looked really great and produced the required short URLs. But apart from a scary technical glitch, there were three other reasons causing me to abandon the embedded URL shortener:

1. Technical issues
At first it all seemed to work perfectly with the embedded bit.ly API. But after one day, I discovered that every link was duplicated into at least 10 shortened links. After a while I found out, that the number of short links created with one original link was growing. Then I found out that my account has produced more than 5000 short links in 24 hours. And when I tested it, every link was multiplied into about 20 short links. Moreover, whenever I created a link but did not use the API to shorten it bit.ly would still create a short link (or 20 to be precise).
I was really scared.
I decided to immediately remove the embedded bit.ly code and emailed my experience to bit.ly’s technical support. That is now three weeks ago and I haven’t got an answer.
So, goodbye bit.ly.

2. Safety
With a normal URL you can in most cases find out where the link is leading you. With the shortened URL this is obstructed. And various sources have claimed already, that URL shortening services are being used by criminals on the web to trick users into clicking on links that install malware on their PCs/devices. Therefore, there is a movement away from shortlinks (unless they are produced by a trusted base like twitter).

3. Marketing
Although you can actually create custom shortlinks, the possibilities for branding are in fact limited. You are way better off to publish links that carry your domain name and try to limit the overall length of your link with the method described in the final section of this post.

4. Responsibility for users 
Embedding other services into your website or web service or application does often mean to share your users with this service. But sharing your users with another platform, albeit often unavoidable, is also a violation of your responsibilities for your users. When you get a service out of that, as with Google analytics, you will probably sacrifice your responsibility for the service that you wish to get. In this case it’s fair to at least warn your users that they’re being tracked by Google analytics. A good way to do this is to have a disclaimer in your imprint. But one can make it a moral habit to embed as few services as possible to share your users as little as possible.

Shortening URLs without shorteners
Currently, The URLs for the pictures to be shared with wowoodu/p is 40 characters – short enough to be shared on twitter and in text messages and just 6 to 8 characters longer then goog.le and bit.ly. This was achieved by naming the directory and the link producing file with just one character and creating a random filename for the pictures that is eight characters long. I could actually do with a filename that is less than five characters long, but to save three characters is probably not worth the loss of safety.

If you’re interested to see how this picture sharing service works, visit wowoodu.com/p. It’s advantage is that pictures are stored on the server for 24 hours only (instead of being shared forever) . We are planning to let the user decide how long his picture should be available on the server. But this is  a feature that has yet to be developed.

Have fun! And I’m always happy for feedback.


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