Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Avoid URL shortners!

     Bit.ly is my favorite URL shortner. For the uninitiated, 'URL shortners' are web sites which allow you to convert long and wierd looking links to short ones. The advantage being, shorter links are easy to copy/paste, do not contain unusual characters (+, =, ? etc) and look tidy. URL shortners' popularity rose to a new high since the arrival of Twitter. URL shorterners ('US's from here onwards) are awesomely useful to the '140 challenged' twitter users ;)

     But, recently I realized that there is a big disadvantage of using USs. The disadvantage is - loss of data due to the camouflage. The disadvantage dawned upon me when after furiously searching all my mails for a particular link I could not find it. I distinctly remembered to have shared it with a friend over email. The link I knew was to a book from Amazon so, I tried to search for 'Amazon' but did not work. Finally when i found the mail, I saw that the link was a bit.ly shortened url.

     The shortened URL hid my own data from me. This was a good enough reason to stop using USs. Another reason is that, with a shortened URL you don't know what site it will open until you click it. In addition, there is yet another very serious reason to rethink about using USs. Today, there are dozens of USs. But, not all will survive the competition. Looking at their business models, some are bound to shutdown one day or the other. Then, what will happen to all the links they shortened ? Of course, those links will be dead. Sadly, the links which were shortened by the US might be very much alive then. Even then, they would be inaccessible just because the US site died. In other words, we are entrusting our data into the hands of not-sure-whether-reliable services. Effectively, once shortened my data is locked into the US's private DB.

     That was only the personal impact. I think there might be a much bigger impact. Out of curiosity I ran a couple of 'real time' searches for 'tinyurl.com' at twitter. From some observation and a rough calculation, I concluded that around 10 tinyurl.com links are tweeted per second! That is close to one million links a day just for tinyurl.com, just at twitter. Thus, one must agree that twitter has become heavily dependent on tinyurl.com whether it wishes or not. An outage at tinyurl for an hour and, tens of thousands of tweets around that hour will become meaningless! However, twitter can easily avoid US. They can change their 140 character limit to something like - 140 characters + one url (say upto 280 chars). The characters beyond the 140 limit would be ignored(as usual) unless they are part of a URL.

     If USs proliferate widely on the internet (i.e on newsgroups, forums, blogs, articles, howtos etc) we would have created for ourselves critical points of failure. The worst part would be - if a big US fails we would not even know what we would have lost. If millions of URLs suddently go defunct, the web might lose a large part of its connectedness! To add to it, US make it no easy for search engines. I wonder how much additional energy would be spent in first resolving shortened urls before they can be of any use to the search engine.

     I know, I have been a bit too skeptical throughout this post. But, theoretically, the things mentioned here could very much happen. Who would have believed 10 years ago that, going ahead majority of people will come to depend on one single company (Google) for their web search, emails, social networking(orkut), news, other reading(reader), shopping(froogle, google checkout) , maps, photos(picasa) and many more services.

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Everyone goes for stuff that looks short and sweet.. no one bothers about the after effects at all.. extrapolates to global warming..