Short and Sweet: the Rise of the Link Shortening Service
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A link shortening service has nothing to do with jewelry or fences, and everything to do with helping Internet users get to where they're going. With their popularity growing thanks to the rise of micro-blogging sites, link shortening services have experienced amazing growth. With this growth comes corresponding issues; keep reading to gain insight into these hazards and the future of such services.
We've all seen them: those strange URLs scattered all over media sites and blogs that don't really seem to point to anywhere relevant. The ones that go to places like tinyurl.com and urlit.net - places that lurk mysteriously on the fringes of cyberspace. But what exactly is their purpose?
The short answer is, they redirect Internet traffic. Based on the obvious yet ingenious idea that long URLs, especially the cryptic kind often generated on database-driven sites by scripts and content management systems, are not user- friendly, link shortening services take these long URLs and make shorter, more manageable aliases to them.
This, in computing and coding terms, is a relatively trivial task. Which is not to say that providing such a service is simple. Setting yourself up as an intermediary, a primary traffic exchange if you like, between Internet users and their destinations puts you in a highly responsible position. Partly for this reason, partly because of limited applicability, the initial growth of services such as tinyurl was fairly slow up until fairly recently.
However, all that has started to change with the startling growth of so-called microblogging sites like twitter and jaiku. These services have changed the blogging landscape forever, by making it commonplace for anybody who can compose a text message to share it with the world. The character limits imposed by microblogging sites mean that they would barely function without link shortening services.
To illustrate the astonishing growth this has resulted in for such sites, consider that the number of redirected links in tinyurl's database has more than doubled in the last year to over 90 million. Three years ago it contained just 5.5 million URLs.
The growth of tinyurl is mirrored by that of Twitter itself. In just one year it has expanded from a startup to become one of the most talked-about social networking sites on the Web, with at least 3 million monthly users. The site even made it to the government level, when Texas congressman John Culberson was reprimanded for twittering in the chamber.
Part of the key to Twitter's extraordinary growth is its brevity. Unlike regular blog sites, which can happily play host to images, sound and video, Twitter has been constructed with the mobile user in mind. SMS messages, as everybody knows, can be no longer than 160 characters, while a tweet (Twitter message) has the even lower limit of 140. This not only encourages immediacy and clarity of expression, but it starts to break down the excess verbiage that can predominate on regular blogs. While content is still king, the more succinctly you tweet, the better.
Of course, not everything can be said in 140 characters - and this is still the web - so linking remains mandatory. No precise figures are available, but a rough poll reveals that around half of all tweets contain a link. That amounts to thousand upon thousands of links per day on Twitter alone. Add in the copycat sites, and consider that the vast majority of these links must be shortened, and it's easy to see why microblogging has had such an extraordinary impact on the popularity of the shortening service providers.
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