URL shorteners, an SEO disaster?

closeThis post was first published 3 years 8 months 29 days ago. It might make references to techniques or tactics which no longer work or which I no longer endorse so please proceed with caution.

If anyone’s been on my Twitter feed you may have noticed I came unfashionably late to the Twitter party. When I first saw short URLs popping up all over the place I didn’t really think much of it but now that Twitter is bigger than Jesus and tinyurl and bit.ly links are as common as regular links its suddenly got my attention.

I did some background reading on the subject of url shorteners and SEO and although people are talking about this, at length, there’s some glaring problems which in my mind make URL shortening services a terrible idea for anyone who cares about their SEO.

Apologies if any or all of the following points have been said a hundred times before, I got bored of my background reading on the subject after the tenth article which did little more than pointing out that you should choose a shortening service which uses a 301 redirect. If anyone has links to places this stuff has been discussed properly please share them in the comments.

Anyway here’s my run down of the pro’s and con’s of URL shorteners for SEO as I see them.

Pro’s

None that I can see.

Con’s

URL shorteners create an extra point of failure

This isn’t just an SEO issue. With anything you do on the web you should start with the realisation that things break. If you think about the huge volume of traffic some of these shortening services must be serving they’ve got to have some serious server farms and load balancing going on. I can’t see how they make money either so I’d assume these aren’t the worlds best servers they’re running on.

If that service goes down your link is broken, simple as. Sure your own site can go down but when you add a shortener service into the mix you’ve got 2 points at which something can go wrong and the request can fail. From an SEO point of view it doesn’t matter if these services use a 301 redirect, 302 redirect or print out your web page and fax it to the user, if their server goes down Google and anyone else won’t follow your link.

Not to mention if the company goes bust billions of links just get vaporized!

Hacking

I think the only thing worse than using URL shorteners on sites like twitter is when people paste those short links onto their own sites. If I was a hacker (a good one) I’d be concentrating 100% of my time and effort on penetrating some of these shortening services. Imagine the damage you could do hacking a shortening service and redirecting every short URL to a piece of malware. If that happened every site with short URL links would be linking out to spam sites which is obviously bad news for SEO and will likely piss off your visitors a bit also. I don’t see any reason to ever use short URLs in blog posts except sheer laziness copy pasting links out of twitter.

Users don’t know what they’re clicking on

Nothing to do with SEO, but personally I’d rather click a link with some idea of the site I’ll end up on.

Link scraping

Twitter feed with followed links on review centre blog

Twitter feed with followed links on review centre blog

Although links on Twitter are nofollowed there’s a chance your links are going to end up on other sites like with those wordpress plugins which display latest tweets or in the example I gave above where bloggers copy and paste a tweet into a blog post.

At BrightonSEO last week Kevin from SEOptimise demonstrated a plugin called blackbird pie (WTF!) which makes this copy pasting easier, although it doesn’t look like it nofollows the links which get scraped off of Twitter so if you look at the bit.ly links on this page are followed and should pass PageRank.

If those links were direct rather than shortened they’d be pretty valuable SEO wise. Even if your shortening service uses a redirect which Google could potentially follow I think its pretty much universally excepted now that link value will diminish through redirection of any sort and I’d speculate especially if that redirection goes through a 3rd party site rather than from 1 page on your own site to another.

Furthermore with the shift of emphasis to brand since Vince I think its fair to say an anchor text link your-domain.com has more value than someone-elses-domain.com.

so:

bit.ly/1234 redirect to johnmcelborough.com/url-shorteners

Passes no anchor text and link value diminishes through the redirect. Where as

johnmcelborough.com/1234 redirect to johnmcelborough.com/url-shorters

Passes branded anchor text and less link value diminishes in the redirect from one page to another on the same domain.

Twitter links and ranking

On my post about building links to ecommerce product pages I floated this idea that links on the real time web can directly influence your rankings, just not in a conventional, pagerank/ anchor text sorta way.

Again its just speculation at this point but for all the same reasons why I want links which get scraped off twitter and followed to link directly to me rather than a URL shortener it stands to reason that links actually on Twitter itself could have more SEO value if they don’t go through redirects

The influence of brand citations

Another fairly speculative idea this one but its an established local ranking factor that unlinked citations of your business on the web could help your local rankings so with the shift towards brand in the algorithm and just generally from  a branding perspective if I’m putting a link out on  Twitter I’d rather it had my name/ brand name in it than the brand of another company!

i.e.

johnmcelborough.com/1234 is a brand citation for johnmcelborough.com

where as

bit.ly/1234 is a brand citation for bit.ly

The increased importance of load speeds

Redirection is an incredibly bandwidth hungry exercise. If you’ve ever seen the setups of some of the big adservers you’ll realise that a couple of redirects and a bit of tracking script become pretty serious business when you multiply it by 1o0 million ad impressions a day. The sames true of url shorteners. Now, again, its not likely there’s a direct SEO ramification from this I just think best practice should be to take the path of greatest speed and least bandwidth which means linking directly rather than through another server. If indeed Google is following Twitter links to some extent its reasonable to assume that they’ll prefer to follow links which don’t slow down their bots.

Why do you need to shorten a URL?

Not withstanding all the SEO stuff above, most of which is admittedly going to net you marginal gains, the question still remains why would you want or need to shorten a URL?

In offline advertising short URL are used for tracking and to make page addresses easier to remember so you might shorten:

http://www.moneysupermarket.com/insurance/travel-insurance.aspx

to

www.moneysupermarket.com/travelinsurance

Online the URL doesn’t need to be recalled and bit.ly/ Tinyurls aren’t great for recall anyway so its just about the space saving when using services like Twitter which have character limits on posts. But with a blog post how much do you really save by shortening a URL? Look at the URL for this post:

http://johnmcelborough.com/url-shorteners – 41 characters (you can safely drop the www because that will redirect anyway)

Now if I shortened that URL with bit.ly I’d get:

http://bit.ly/b0B1qT – 20 characters, a saving of 21 characters

or with Tinyurl:

http://tinyurl.com/33bo7p9 – 26 characters, a saving of 15 characters

Now I haven’t exactly got the shortest domain name as it is (damn those Scottish/ Irish roots) but pasting in my full URL I’ve still got about 100 characters to add my message, any tags and allow room for people to retweet and add their own comments. So for bloggers, when its so easy to write your own permalinks or just set up your own redirects I really don’t see the point in shortening URL’s just for use on twitter.

Obviously long ass URL strings like you get from Google maps or product pages on big shopping carts- fair enough you’re going to need some sort of shortening service but I’d definitely be inclined to set this up yourself if you’re anticipating a lot of people wanting to link to you from social sites. It might be a bit of work so if it looks like its going to be expensive definitely don’t make it a priority but most open source CMS’s will have components which let you setup your own redirects quickly and easily so redirection for wordpress or ushorten for Joomla.

So what do you think? Like I said at the top I really don’t use Twitter so I’m looking at URL shorteners from an outsiders perspective.


Update – Jonathan from the review centre pointed out that the review centre twitter widget is actually using javascript so those links won’t pass weight. Plenty of other WordPress Twitter widgets do output as HTML though, actually including the one on Jonathans blog :-)

8 Comments URL shorteners, an SEO disaster?

    1. admin

      Possibly. In fact I think i might be missing the point of twitter altogether!

      My point is though most of these shortening services only save a few characters which for me makes them redundant.

      Reply
  1. Pete

    I never use these and after thinking about your point on their servers going down/being hacked I’m even less likely to use them. Also for any offline material I certainly wouldn’t use them, they may be less characters but they are not easy to remember or type in, a long URL based on real words is far easier to remember and type in to your browser as each word is one thing to remember rather than each character. The Guardian uses them in printed material which I find annoying especially when they could just set up redirects using their own domain e.g. guardian.com/topic is easier to remember than http://bit.ly/b0B1qT

    They do have uses (Twitter) but if I am going to sue on I would use the Google one (http://goo.gl), using them may hinder SEO but having all the short URLs you use listed by Google can’t be a bad thing (even if I couldn’t prove it would be a good thing!)

    Reply
    1. admin

      Absolutely right pete, using a url like that offline is just nuts!

      I’ve never really thought about any benefits which could come from using google own service. Would probably be niave to think they weren’t using that data in some way

      Reply
  2. Simon Hibbott

    I’m inclined to agree. Where possible I use the full url, but where character limitations require I use a shortener – either bit.ly or goo.gl. The point Pete makes about the relative ease of remembering guardian.com/topic is also a compelling one.

    Reply
  3. Carlen Lea Lesser

    I saw someone already said it but the key is that most URLs are 10x too long to use on Twitter. If they do fit, then you can’t actually say anything about the link.

    There is also a benefit for brands (or brand like individuals) in being able to track on which links people click on, especially if they aren’t linking to their own sites for any reason.

    Reply

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