The Complete Guide to Shortened URLs

In this article I’m going to show you how to shorten URLs and why it can be useful. I’ll also briefly discuss the dangers of shortened URLs.

First off, what is a URL? It’s an abbreviation that stands for Uniform Resource Locator, but that probably doesn’t help much. URLs are addresses for web site locations, just like Liberty Island, New York, NY 10004 is an address for a real world location (the Statue of Liberty). They usually start with http or https, but can also have ftp, mailto, file or a number of others.

Why shorten URLs?

There are a few common reasons. You might want to post a link on twitter but you’re restricted to 140 characters, or you want to share a link by email but the URL is so long it looks unwieldy.

For example, here’s a Google Maps link to a location in Amsterdam: http://maps.google.com/maps?f=q&hl=en&geocode=&time=&date=&ttype=&q= Stadhouderskade+42,+Amsterdam,+The+Netherlands&sll=40.71451,-74.0071 4&sspn=0.625578,1.560059&ie=UTF8&z=16&iwloc=addr&om=1

And here’s a link to a close-up view of the Statue of Liberty:

https://maps.google.com/maps?q=new+york+city&hl=en&ll=40.689614,-74.044481&spn=0.001365,0.001151&sll=39.759663,-86.38642…

Note: I had to put an ellipses there because it was so long it ran into the sidebar - yet another reason to avoid really long links

Here is a shortened link to the location in Amsterdam: http://bit.ly/1gpz9sv

And here is a shortened link to the Statue of Liberty: http://bit.ly/1jdIaQk

The shortened links still end up at the same link as the large ones. But the links above are both over Twitter’s 140-character limit, meaning you wouldn’t even be able to link to it, much less say anything. The shortened links leave plenty of room for witty commentary in a tweet.

Alright, so we can see the benefits of shortening links, now I’ll show you how to do it.

There are plenty of URL shorteners to choose from. They all work fine. We’re going to use a popular one named Bitly.

To shorten your URL, copy the text in your web browser’s address bar by right-clicking and selecting Copy or holding down the Ctrl key then pressing the c key.

Using Bitly to shorten a link

Go to http://bitly.com and either right-click in the text box at the top and select Paste or hit Ctrl+v (hold down control until you’ve hit the ‘v’ key).

Now that you’ve pasted the long URL, click the orange Shorten button.

The result of shortening a URL on bitly

The resulting page displays the shortened URL as well as the original. Click the darker Copy button at the top next to the shortened URL, then paste it wherever you’d like using Ctrl+v.

The shortened link is just like any other URL. The only difference is there’s one extra hop in between. It’s like when you mail a letter to someone who has forwarded their mail. The letter still gets to them, but it makes an extra pit stop en route.

There can be a sinister side to shortened links. What if a conniving person set up a web site that did bad things to your computer if you visited it? You might realize the URL isn’t one you trust or it might look fishy for some reason. But what if they used Bitly to create a shortened link? There would be no way to tell where the link went. And what if they sent you an email with the link saying you would earn $500 for filling out a 3-question survey?

I hope you would realize it’s a scam, but the core problem with shortened URLs is you don’t know where they lead.

The solution? A site called LongURL. They visit the shortened link for you so you can see the final destination without going there yourself. It’s like a landmine clearing device for the web. If you get a shortened link from someone, you can always check it out on LongURL to be on the safe side.

Now you know what shortened links are for, how they can be useful and when they can be dangerous.

May 23, 2014
656 words
4 minute read

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