Build Your Own URL Shortener for Security, Branding, Reliability

Thanks to the types of content management systems many news organizations use, news stories often are saddled with extremely ugly, unwieldy Web addresses (URLs). For instance:

Long URLs present a challenge in an age where personal recommendations of specific stories are becoming an increasingly important source of news site traffic and branding. For instance, posts on Twitter (where more and more people recommend and find news stories) are limited to 140 characters.

And surprisingly often, people’s e-mail programs still sometimes break or truncate long links in e-mail messages, causing those links not to work for recipients.

URL shorteners allow you to set up a unique, permanent, and short redirect to any Web address. For instance, these redirects point to the same stories listed above: http://bit.ly/BSJl9 (19 characters), http://tinyurl.com/ovy3a3 (25 characters), and http://tr.im/lFnT (17 characters). Some of these services, notably Bit.ly, also provide useful analytics.

But hosted URL shortening services present several challenges of their own:

  • Reliability. If a shortening service you use goes down or dies, links to your content would cease to function.
  • Security. If the shortener you use gets hacked, your existing links could end up pointing to different destinations and could perpetrate phishing attacks on would-be visitors to your site.
  • Branding. When you use a hosted shortener service, the links you create visually promote their brand, not yours.

For all these reasons, if you routinely publish shortlinks to your content (via social media, e-mail alerts, and other means), it might make sense to build your own URL shortener rather than relying on a hosted service.

Amazon.com recently did this. It’s apparently a fairly straightforward technical task — perhaps not always trivial, but very doable for any news site. It doesn’t necessarily involve changing your existing URL regime for published pages. Rather, it’s about generating short redirect URLs that point to your pages.

Given the complex and often proprietary nature of CMSs used at news organizations, you’d probably have to engage a programmer to build a custom redirect service for you. But if you’re using an open-source CMS such as WordPress, shortener modules probably already exist. If your CMS uses a MySQL database, you might be able to use the open-source software Kissa.be to roll your own link shortener. (NetHakz explains how.)

You also should buy a short version of your domain. This helps you promote your brand while preserving brevity, and also makes tracking proliferation of your redirects easier. Look especially for non-U.S. top-level domains that might work. For instance, the Roanoke Times might secure this domain from Spain for its shortlinks: rtim.es

Once your custom shortener is in place, you could use it in a couple of ways:

First, when tweeting about your own content, make sure you include the shortlinks generated by your system, not the shortlinks generated by a Twitter client application like Tweetdeck. It’s likely that your shortlink would get copied in any retweets, and thus propagate not just your news, but your brand.

Also, if your site offers link sharing tie-ins like “e-mail this,” “tweet this,” or “share this” with each story, make sure your own shortlinks (not the original long URL) get copied into those recommendations. That will make it even easier for the people who encounter those shared links to re-share them via their own preferred channels.

Of course, this strategy won’t prevent site visitors from creating their own shortlinks to your content via their preferred services, but that’s OK. You’ll at least have some important control over the reliability, security and branding of links to your content from social media and e-mail.

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