Wednesday, October 28, 2009

A Need for University Branded URL Shortening Services?

Twitter users are quite familiar with URL shortening tools as a way to include web links within their 140 character limit. URL shorting is is the process of taking a long URL and turning it into, well, a short one. For example, instead of using the long URL of one can use the shortened URL of

Shortened URLs are extremely useful in Internet conversations such as forum threads,IM chats, etc. They are also essential in communication channels where there is a limited to specific number of characters, such as with Twitter. Shortened URLs can also be useful when reading long URLs aloud to customers over the phone, adding URLs to print materials, and when showing them on video displays or during presentations. Shortened URLs are also easier to enter into a mobile device.

There are many services that create shortened URLs, most notably OCLC was ahead of this game way back in 1995 with their PURL ( Persistent Uniform Resource Locators ) service. While the goal of PURL was to allow content providers to redirect users as content moves from site to site, it did so using shorter URLs. 

The mechanism for resolving a shortening URLs is simple: The browser is directed to the shortened URL site. That site performs an HTTP redirect of the address and the browser is sent to the registered long URL. The URL shortening service maintains the master table of redirects.

One problem is that all the shortened links die when such free services die, as almost did in August '09. As a result, members of the academic community that rely upon such services will eventually lose access to their shortened links. This will require reentering the URLs into another service, which might also die.

Another concern with existing shortening services that the URL domain plays an important role in identifying the authority of a Web resource. Shortened URLs lose their link and organizational information. All brand/name recognition - the authority of an organization - goes away since the domain is hidden within the shortened URL. One needs to click on the shortened URL and visit the redirected site before discovering the domain's authority.

An example of where short URL branding works is with Flickr. Each photo page also get a shortened Flickr URL. The domain is owned and operated by so the shortening service will be as reliable as the Flickr service. When someone goes to the site they know they will get to a Flickr photo page, not a redirect to a site containing malware.

It therefore makes a lot of sense than academic institutions consider building their own URL shortening services as a way to brand and create authority with their shortened URLs. One University that has done just that is the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Wayne State University also appears to have such a service.

I would love to see a local shorting service. If I had the programming chops, I would write it over the next weekend. I know. It's easier to start a shortening service than it is to maintain it in perpetuity.

Yet, creating an in-house URL shortening service not only helps to promote and support the institutional brand, it lessens the chance that the institution's carefully crafted custom links will not die if the third-party goes down, or out of business.
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