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Short and Sweet: the Rise of the Link Shortening Service
By: Bruce Coker
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    Table of Contents:
  • Short and Sweet: the Rise of the Link Shortening Service
  • The hazards of growth
  • What's the problem?
  • What's in it for them?

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    Short and Sweet: the Rise of the Link Shortening Service - What's the problem?

    (Page 3 of 4 )

    David identifies spam as the main problem associated with running tdurl. He says that most of the third party activity on his site was "from people attempting to mask other affiliate URLs and spam newsgroups, message boards, email, myspace, blogs, you name it."

    The core task, even above the challenge of handling rapidly increasing volumes of traffic on a low income stream, was implementing adequate filtering and monitoring. Spammers would even redirect links from one shortening service to another, attempting to create multiple levels of redirection and forcing David to ban links to and from tinyurl and the rest.

    Eventually, running the service became a continuous battle to stay off spam blacklists, stop legitimate links from his site being banned by server administrators, and prevent his name becoming indelibly linked with spam. David reiterates the point that he encountered these problems as somebody who didn't actively promote their service. The difficulties faced by those who do are almost unimaginable.

    From a user's perspective, the spam issue presents itself in the difficulty of not knowing where a shortened link will lead. This is not too much of a concern if the link is followed from a reputable source: the New York Times is unlikely to direct you to a malware-infested, vice-ridden pornography site. But what about the hundreds of links posted on Twitter every minute by random strangers? They could point literally anywhere, as all the usual clues have been removed in the shortening process.

    Tinyurl and qurl have faced this problem head-on with the introduction of preview features. When enabled, these expand each shortened url you click to its long counterpart before taking you there, and are a welcome addition which other shortening services would do well to emulate.

    Although spam control might be the major challenge faced by shortening service providers, it is by no means the only one. Scalability is another, and in the era of the microblog it could be the one that ultimately determines success or failure.

    The problem is illustrated by the experience of, the shortening service launched by Betaworks in July 2008 with the specific goals of being open and scalable. The service was launched without fanfare, but within days traffic levels were spiraling. Starting from a low base, has so far been able to handle the unexpectedly high volumes. Nonetheless, John Borthwick, Betaworks chief executive, is not complacent about the issues. Acknowledging the high cost of building a service that "scales, grows and keeps billions of URLs," Borthwick understands that the real challenge is maintaining data integrity when such a level is attained. "We're thinking hard," he says, "about how to deal with it when we have billions."

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