Ever wonder how The New York Times shortens its links on Twitter to "nyti.ms," followed by some combo of letters and numbers?

If not, maybe you should. In 2010 social media traffic to news sites continued to grow for large and small news organizations. Utilizing a branded URL shortener is just one piece of a smart social media strategy, and it's not all that difficult to do.

First, you may need to convince someone at your organization that this is an effort worth making. Here are a few good reasons:

  • Custom URL shorteners let those sharing and viewing tweets know that the link can be trusted. Given that spammers use link shorteners to trick users, it’s worthwhile to share your content via a shortened link that users recognize and won’t be afraid to click on.
  • Creating your own shortener enables you to give your brand new exposure. For example, journalists on Twitter can use their news site's URL shortener to help extend the site's brand. Paying for bitly.Pro (more to come on this) can even make links shared by anybody in TweetDeck and other applications shorten to your branded URL instead of the default bit.ly links.
  • If the majority of your staffers use your organization’s custom URL shortener when they share content via social media, you can easily track the traffic this drives and even pick out which journalist carries the most influence or writes the most engaging tweets.
  • Custom URLs also enable you to highlight special packages. For example, you could create a custom URL that points to a landing page with all of your election coverage. As features are added to shorteners, publishers will have the opportunity to experiment with advancements such as bit.ly Bundles or QR codes.

Finding the right domain

No matter what route you take, it all starts with finding a short domain name, preferably one that is seven characters or less.

Look for something that’s easily recognizable as an abbreviation of your full domain name or organization. Domainr is an excellent tool for finding which domains are available, and it searches for trendy domain extensions. It’s also a good idea to use a 301 redirect to point the root of your short domain to your real website.

A power shortener

Bitly.Pro’s Enterprise service offers publishers a URL shortener that automatically changes to a short link when users tweet from a client such as TweetDeck or Seesmic. This “end-to-end branding” means that when a reader pastes a link from your website into one of these sharing platforms, it will automatically create a short link with your chosen domain name.

Bitly.Pro Enterprise’s other advantages include real-time analytics, a more advanced dashboard and a service-level agreement with customer support. The company does charge $995 per month, however, which may be too much for some organizations to justify.

Other options

Awe.sm offers a less expensive service (starting at $129 a month) that comes with analytics and an API to experiment with, among other features. Awe.sm has noticeable restrictions on its plans, however, like the number of short links you can generate a month and the number of users that can access the dashboard.

BudURL Pro, which starts at $24 a month, offers city-level analytics and generates a QR code for each shortened URL. This feature holds interesting possibilities for interactive print advertising and for tying together print and online coverage.

Not to be forgotten, the free version of bit.ly Pro delivers just the basics but might be a good starting point for publishers who are debating whether to use the more expensive enterprise service.

Indie methods

Of course, there are also free, easy and independent ways to set up your own URL shortener.

Once you’ve got your short domain set up and pointed to your servers, you can easily install some shortening software. Yourls is a set of open-source scripts with a standard feature set, including the ability to create a public interface that would enable anyone to shorten a link with your branding.

Another simple route is to install WordPress and the Pretty Link plugin on your servers at the root of your short domain. Pretty Link is free for a set of basic features and includes analytics and a handy bookmark for shortening links with one click. Pretty Link Pro is $37 for a single-site license and includes a few more options. For journalists who want their own short links without too much effort, this is the way to go.

Both Yourls and Pretty Link are actively developed and open source, so there’s a lot of potential for your own developers or consultants to dive in and add more features.

Should reliability be a concern?

There are some risks that can come with using third-party services. Providers could have their databases hacked, or they could simply go out of business, meaning your shortened links would no longer work. (The same could be said about any unbranded service you’re using now). But over the past year, companies like bit.ly have raised significant venture capital and have continued to build a business instead of just a cool tool.

Even if these services or open-source software were to become unusable, it would not be a killer blow. A database of redirects would be fairly easy to move with limited interruption to users. If you’re looking to further engage digital and social readers, now is a good time to get started with your own custom shortener.