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The Incredible Shrinking URL

Verbosity makes for reading that's tedious and takes longer to understand without aiding comprehension. Or, rather: wordy bad, pithy good.

The same is true for URLs (Uniform Resource Locators). Long, complex URLs are the bane of Web links sent via email, since many of the most popular and interesting sites and many common blog management systems create URLs that can't routinely be sent, received, and followed successfully in email without additional effort.

Generally, URLs of less than 70 characters work properly in most email readers. Longer URLs, which tend to break across lines, are often mangled in email by the addition of spaces or returns in the middle of the URL unless the entire URL is enclosed in angle brackets. (Although it's not part of the URL specification, using angle brackets to protect URLs in email and Usenet news has long been recommended by the W3C; TidBITS has been using the technique since 1996.)

<http://www.w3.org/Addressing/URL/5.1_ Wrappers.html>

But there is another way, albeit one that eliminates the domain and directory information inherent in even a truly ugly URL. Several services can take a long URL and produce a short one, using the redirection that's part of HTTP (Hypertext Transfer Protocol) to send users to the current destination.

[As much as we appreciate being able to use short URLs in TidBITS, we intentionally avoid these services - even a hypothetical one that we could design and run ourselves - out of a sense of serving posterity. Many of the URLs that have appeared in TidBITS since we started including them in articles in 1994 are now broken, and in most cases, the resources they pointed at are long gone as well. But because we published the full URLs back then, readers can at least gain a sense of where the URL was supposed to go, and they could potentially use the URLs with the Internet Archive's Wayback Machine to find cached versions of the pages. -Adam]


If it's not the granddaddy of these services, TinyURL.com is at least the most popular. The site's parent, Gilby Productions, claims 220 million hits a month and a history of 13 million converted URLs. It's a simple task to visit the site, paste your URL in the entry field, click Make TinyURL, and copy the result.


There are lots of other short URL makers because it's an incredibly trivial piece of programming to perform this kind of URL mapping. More difficult are the ancillary tasks: keeping these redirections running indefinitely, maintaining a database, allowing updates to the short URL once created (in case the destination changes), and providing click-through statistics. Still, we're not talking about an effort on par with mapping the human genome here, and as a result, all the services I've found are currently free.

Despite the necessary similarity of these services, they do attempt to differentiate themselves from one another. Shorl, for instance, creates a unique URL that you can use to check on clickthroughs. SnipURL allows you to create an account for tracking many shortened URLs. Notlong creates a unique host name or lets you create one (i.e., foob.notlong.com could point to a TidBITS article's URL). Other services include DigBig and Shrinkster.


One of my favorites is LookLeap, created by Sid Steward, a PDF wizard who has done linking and cleaning magic on the electronic versions of several books I've co-authored. Sid's service exposes a little more of the destination by including the domain of the URL you're shortening, thus giving back some of the useful information from the original URL in the shortened lookleap.com version. LookLeap goes a step further, too, offering a point of discussion for a given page, creating a thumbnail and a cache in HTML and PDF form, and providing open statistics for links to given domains.


As you might expect, almost any Internet technology of sufficient popularity has also generated parodies. So if you think using long, complex URLs makes you look sophisticated, feed your puny little URL to GiganticURL.com and, well, don't try to memorize the results unless you're eidetic. I'd link to one, just for fun, but it's not worth increasing the size of this article by 2K for the example.



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