Twitter announced that it will start ‘wrapping’ all URLs through it’s URL ‘shortening’ service, t.co. This effectively ends the reason for many URL wrapping (or ‘shortening’) services that cropped up over the years.
However, companies like Bit.ly that started to meet this need for shorter URLs — largely because of Twitter’s 104 character limit — grew into media analytics services, tracking clicks and other access through URLs passed through Twitter, other services, and pasted into web sites.
However, Twitter has steadily encroached: first by creating t.co and using it to wrap long URLs, and recently, by rolling out its own analytics tools. Wrapping all URLs would appear to be the final nail in that coffin.
Not so, according to Hilary Mason, chief scientist of Bit.ly:
Nitasha Tiku via Betabeat
Twitter tweeted out a post today spreading the word that, “We’re about to start wrapping all URLs regardless of their length with the t.co URL wrapper.” But chief scientist Hilary Mason told Betabeat it’s no big deal for bit.ly. “We don’t expect to see any changes,” she emailed.
Ms. Mason pointed out that Twitter has essentially been doing the same thing since August 24th. “The only change is that they will now wrap links under twenty characters, which means that there will actually be tweets longer than 140 characters,” she wrote, adding, “It hasn’t had much of an effect on bitly. We provide public analytics that people love!” (It’s true, Betabeat does spend perhaps too much time on the bit.ly’s Info Page showing when and where your tweets were accessed.)
That doesn’t mean everyone remains unscathed by Twitter’s announcement, however. As Ms. Mason noted, “It’s much more of an issue for Twitter app developers than for us!”
This doesn’t really scan. Yes, Bit.ly can still do what it does, and Twitter’s moves in this area have been obvious for several years so Bit.ly has had a lot of time to adapt to a changing conetxt, with Twitter as a competitor. But it’s not sensible to assert that Twitter’s actions in this regard have no impact on Bit.ly.
[Tiku updated after talking this over with other folks.]
As Tom Critchlow, VP of Operations at Distilled NYC was quick to point out, if bit.ly’s strength is metadata, it may soon have some competition in that arena as well. “Twitter is definitely planning on rolling out more robust analytics,” Mr. Critchlow wrote Betabeat via Skype. As he pointed out, “This will likely be publisher driven (i.e. not public, but you can analyze the tweets of a site you control). So not quite killing all the features of bit.ly. But most of the use for bit.ly (via Twitter) that I see right now is from marketers who want to manage and track their own Twitter activity and I can imagine Twitter analytics providing a large part of that.” For more general link shortening, Mr. Critchlow hypothesized, “bit.ly is still the defacto choice.”
On the Distilled NYC blog back in August, Mr. Critchlow noted that Distilled received fewer direct visits than it had on the same day of the week for the previous six months after Twitter rolled out its t.co shortener.
“Obviously Hilary has access to data that I don’t and likely has more of a clue about bit.ly’s traffic stats,” Mr. Critchlow acknowledged. Indeed, we don’t know if marketers (or, ehem, bloggers, are the service’s only power users). “But it feels to me like once Twitter analytics roll out there will be much less of a need for bit.ly in the Twitter ecosystem,” he wrote.
Based on unverified Quantcast data, bit.ly’s traffic has been dropping since April, before Twitter started wrapping their URLs. But Ms. Mason responded by email, “I’m not familiar with how Quantcast calculates those numbers, but I doubt that it fully considers the bit.ly API or HTTP 301 redirects, which is where we see the majority of our traffic.”
“You also need to keep in mind that Twitter is only one social network,” she added. “Bit.ly is used widely across many networks. I’ll also reiterate my earlier point, which is that Twitter has been wrapping almost all links since August — I don’t see why wrapping the tiny remaining percentage will make a difference in how people use bit.ly.”
Bit.ly has established relationships with many media companies, but it seems obvious that Twitter would like to disrupt that cozy relationship. Considering that Twitter has pushed the metaphor of a ‘real-time information network’ there is no doubt that analytics around URL use are core functionality, and that Bit.ly and others now face their most serious competition: Twitter itself.
Somehow I stumbled across Bre.ad, a URL shortening services that allows the user to insert ads into the URL resolution process, along with various analytics as well. I think this is halfway between cool and ugh. On one hand, if you have some cause to promote, why not put it in front of people who want to click on your URLs? On the other, it is going to be just a source of annoyance to those people. Yes, Bre.ad allows the unwitting viewers of your ‘billboards’ (as they call them) to click through, but that’s still a pothole on the internet highway.
The process is reasonably straightforward. You create a ‘billboard’ from an image, along with an icon, and some text. Here’s one I created to promote the upcoming Future of Work Tour I am participating in for Podio:
Then you create short URLs that will resolve to some web page — like my recent post, What About The Weak Ties? — but momentarily showing the ‘billboard’:
You can see at the top that Bre.ad’s 5 second timer had ticked down to 1, and there are pause and continue controls, as well.
For the Bre.ad user, there is a link history page:
And each page can be opened for a more in-depth details page:
I only created a single ‘toast’ but users can have many, and can select which to use when creating short URLs, which are of the form ‘http://bre.ad/067gb5’.
Bre.ad aspires to be a social tool, not just an appliance. Users can follow each other for example, and so the ‘activity feed’ is something like Tumblr or Twitter, with others’ ‘toasts’ and activities appearing in the stream:
A user can opt to use others’ toasts — basically promoting their causes or advertisements — when creating a short URL.
Here’s what I see when selecting Ben Parr’s toast for clean drinking water, for example:
Bre.ad is exactly what it says: A URL shortener that allows you to create an interstitial ad in the URL resolution. Very clever, and relatively inoffensive when the purpose is promoting a social cause, like Ben Parr’s example.
I have a feeling that we’d all get peeved if we started to see Chevy ads all the time, although that’s not really different from what we see when we land on big media sites, really. My friend @orian thought the link was bad on one post I was experimenting with, I guess because we aren’t used to Bre.ad-style ads in the middle of URL resolution. That reaction would go away after a few exposures, though.
I can imagine a few variations on the Bre.ad theme that might be interesting. For example, imagine I could promote other posts on my blog — like the hottest story there today — whenever someone clicked on one of my links pointing to any post on the blog. Alternatively, I could display other people’s posts that I liked recently.
Bre.ad style interstitial promotion could be moch more general that the simplest use case, which is advertising. But it appears to do a good job on the basic use case, already.
Looks like GoDaddy has entered the short URL marketplace by knocking off Bit.ly.
You create an account or login with an existing one and then you can create x.co short URLs, including customized URLs. I created x.co/cdixon linking to his recent ‘Things I’d do if I ran a big VC firm’ post.
They have stats, like Bit.ly, although they don’t make a separation of links from the URL you created or clicks on other created URLs, or maybe I don’t get the ‘total referrer clicks’ figure:
I have to admit, x.co is as short as you can go, so I will now be on the lookout to see if GoDaddy starts to get some play in this world.
The ‘share’ interface is really ugly:
It makes me think that their icon images aren’t being rendered and I can seeing the text replacement.
The tool seems adequate, although no reason for me to switch from Bit.ly that I can see, unless it were to grab a custom URL.
[disclosure: I am an advisor to Bit.ly and have a financial interest in the company]