URL Shortening 101: How It Works, Use Cases and Examples 

Digital pros create millions of short URL links every day. This guide shows how anyone can start using URL shortener tools. Explore the tech behind them, how to create and use them, and how to select a good tool to market your content effectively.

In this article:

Benefits of a Shortened URL

How Do URL Shortener Services Work?

How to Shorten a URL for Free

URL Shortening Use Cases

How to Find the Best URL Shortening Service for Your Company

What Is URL Shortening?

URL shortening simplifies unwieldy web addresses to as few as ten characters. The shortened URL still sends you to the original URL (Uniform Resource Locator). The benefits include better display, better marketing and tracking features.

“Today, there are more than a billion websites and some 50 billion unique web pages or URLs.  Businesses need shorter URLs to share these links with their users and customers especially on social media networks”, notes Raghu Srinivasan, CTO of Bitly. “A long link like https://www.usatoday.com/story/travel/2022/02/10/amtrak-deal-valentines-offer-sale/6741296001/ can be compressed using Bitly to https://bit.ly/3Bg19uM. In fact Bitly even allows you to change it to https://bit.ly/amtrak-valentines which is much more memorable. Finally, companies can leverage their brand to create branded short links such as https://es.pn/3u5oTju or https://nyti.ms/3AyocAy – all powered by the Bitly platform” 

Based on this information, it’s easy to see how increasingly complicated a long address may be. A URL shortener is the best way to streamline clumsy web page addresses.

What Is a URL Shortener?

A URL shortener is an app that condenses web addresses. The app, also known as a link shortener, redirects the shorter URL to the original. Bitly is an example of a URL shortener. Also, platforms like Twitter and YouTube shorten links when you share them.

The first URL shortening tool patent showed up in 2000, and the first URL shortener service launched in 2002. Today, there are free and fee-based URL shorteners. Apps, such as Twitter and WordPress, often include automated URL shortening on their platform. General-use ones usually have a free version, offering shortening and other essential services. However, monthly fees apply for additional services like advanced tracking, bulk shortening or campaign management. 

What Is the Purpose of a URL Shortener?

A URL shortener aims to convert long web addresses into shorter links that display better. Some link shorteners only provide shortening, while more sophisticated apps may add better tracking and analytics.

Link shorteners gained popularity when Twitter limited tweets to 140 characters. Then, a longer link could have taken up the entire word count since every character in the link counted as a character. Today, the need isn’t as pressing since all Twitter links count as 23 characters. But truncated URLs remain a best practice to distribute content across all social networks and other channels, including Twitter.

What Is a URL Shortening Service?

A URL shortening service is a web app that reduces the length of Uniform Resource Locators to a short, alphanumeric code. The service maintains the connection between the original, long link and the new shorter link. In addition, some services provide enhanced analytics.

URL shortening services can include link tracking for analytics to check the number of clicks, users, traffic patterns and other stats you may want to follow. Digital professionals also use URL shorteners to A/B test which links resonate with their audience. 

Shortened links also enable link masking. Link masking is the natural consequence of URL shortening since the long URL changes into a short one. Masked links are good for analysis and software programs to track where links originate. Link masking is also beneficial to increase affiliate link clicks to sell products or services.

Benefits of a Short URL

The benefits of short URLs center on better display, branding, engagement and analytics. Also, a short URL supports online and offline marketing, improves analysis and enhances a company’s brand.

Better Display and Accessibility With Short URLs

Shortened URLs provide the highly noticeable benefit of better display and accessibility. You give the users simple links of about 10 to 30 characters instead of complicated ones that are hard to read and break awkwardly.

Here’s a more detailed list of how short URLs help with display:

Improved aesthetics: Long URLs can be unsightly and indecipherable because of sheer length, unique values and control characters. More streamlined URLs look better in social media, like Instagram, Twitter and TikTok. Easier reading: Long URLs can fill your text with a dense mishmash of words and symbols. Also, they often break awkwardly, looking like a mistake. Simplified sharing: A shortened link is more accessible for your readers to click, copy, and share in their post, which can help your content gain organic exposure on social networks. 

Better Marketing and Analysis With Short URLs

Short URLs enable better tracking and analysis behind the scenes, especially when using a paid service. Other benefits include better SEO and higher click-through rates.

More detailed marketing benefits of short URLs include:

Link tracking and analysis: Most paid URL shortening services provide analytical data. By tracking link success, audience engagement is available for research, and strategies are adjusted as needed. Some services offer a breakdown of visitors by demographics, such as country or gender. You can also tell which social channels or posts drive the most clicks. Urchin Tracking Module (UTM): UTM tracking involves the addition of UTM codes to pinpoint where traffic originates. When you use UTMs correctly, it adds more specificity to your reporting. In addition, understanding the content that drives traffic helps improve audience targeting.Improved search engine rankings: The structure of your URL influences site rankings. For example, a target keyword in shortened URLs provides users and search engines clues to your page topic. Link metrics are as important as tracking comments, follows or likes.Higher click-through rate: People are familiar with and prefer shortened links on social media, and consequently, shortened links increase click-through rates. Changing to shorter links almost immediately reaps results.Better site structure: Simplifying URL structure makes site navigation and expansion much more manageable.  

Brand Enhancement With Short URLs

Short URLs can enhance your brand’s perception, engagement and user trust. On the other hand, long, complex links can look spammy or unprofessional.

More detailed brand benefits of short URLs include:

More robust engagement: Your audience is more likely to engage with a shortened URL, especially one connected to your brand.Professionalism: Long URLs can seem messy or untidy and negatively impact visitors accustomed to cleaner, shortened links.More legitimacy: A shortened link matching other links on your brand’s digital marketing materials and social media lends more content authority. Branded links: Branded links can include a company name or evocative word that embodies what they stand for. Businesses use these links on social media, in SMS messages, at live events, and on printed materials, among many other ways to expand their brand’s reach.Greater user trust: A clean URL makes your site or social media feel more trustworthy and authoritative. 

Examples of Shortened URLs

Shortened URLs are usually 10 to 30 characters and work just like the original URL. Here’s an example: The URL “https://techcrunch.com/2021/12/01/bitly-makes-first-acquisition-with-qr-code-leader-egoditor/” shortens to “https://tcrn.ch/3yJH0vv.” Short URLs apply well to content marketing but also education, fundraising and other areas.

Shortened URLs for Learning and Education 

Research and academic content URLs often run long, prompting the increasing use of short URLs. For example, a link to a book about Florentine history may seem (almost) as long and twisting as that very history. As a result, short URLs are becoming accepted practice in scholarly work.

Example of a Shortened URL for Education

[Source: Bitly.com]

FSH3: Shortened URLs for Fundraising

Institutions often use SMS, print, radio and other channels for fundraising, but their URLs can be extremely long. It’s easier to get the word out with a short handle instead of a long one.

Example of a Shortened URL for Fundraising

[Source: Bitly.com]

The Growing Use of URL Shortening Around the World

People worldwide have increasingly used URL shorteners as the digital world has grown more complex. Digital professionals have found it pays to use shortened URLs for ecommerce, social media, research, branding and SEO. Free URL shorteners make it easy for anyone to try them.

URL Shortening Statistics

[Source: Bitly.com]

[Source: Bitly.com]

How Do URL Shortener Services Work?

A URL shortener service automatically shortens a link. Then, the short web address redirects to the original URL. For users, the process is pretty simple. The shortener service takes care of the servers, mapping, redirecting and data storage.

Here’s a simple six-step overview of how link shorteners work:

A user makes a URL shortening request to the application server, service, or centralized resource in a network. For example, high-volume services may have multiple servers and a load balancer to distribute the workload.The URL shortening service accepts a long URL as input.The long URL maps onto a unique short URL on the server, and the service applies the appropriate type of HyperText Transfer Protocol (HTTP) status code for redirection.  The database maintains the storage for the mapping of URLs. Additional data for each entry lives in the database, including unique user IDs and expiration dates.The shortened URL returns to the server.The server sends the shortened URL to the user to copy and use.

The URL Shortener Service Process 

[Source: Bitly.com]

How Do URL Shorteners Redirect?

URL shorteners use a web server function to redirect visitors. A URL status code or HTTP command redirects visitors to the original longer web address. Different codes determine permanent or temporary page redirects.  

When you enter a URL into a browser, this sends an HTTP command to the webserver to retrieve and transmit the initially requested web page. The most common redirect status codes used with shortened URLs are:

301: A permanent HTTP redirect status code, meaning that the redirection “order” will not change. 302: A temporary HTTP redirect status code that means the page is located but has moved to a different location used for a limited time.307: Another temporary HTTP redirect status code that increasingly replaces the 302 code.

Updating Shortened Links With Redirects

Redirecting a link means you change the ultimate destination of another page. At times, you may want to redirect a link you previously shortened. Fresh redirects update links, correct destination errors, or manually retire old links.

Examples of updating with new redirect include:

Link updates: Blog content often needs updating. You can change a link to point to new content, as in this example. 
Bitly interface that shows a redirected link and a list of previous destination URLs
[Source: Bitly.com]Destination corrections: Sometimes, you might paste the wrong URL when shortening a link. Not a problem. You can correct the original by editing the destination URL.Retire old links: Some links have a brief life because they serve a special offer or promotion. If a link is no longer valid, the URL owner can manually change the destination. 

How to Shorten a URL

Shortening a URL is simple. First, copy the long URL from your website, social media account or other long web address location. Second, copy into link shortening service. Third, enter your URL and request link creation. Fourth, save your new URL.

How to Shorten a URL for Free

Most URL shortening services offer a free version. Basically, you enter your URL and get a short one back. Also, some apps such as social media automatically shorten URLs for sharing. Free shortening makes sense if your volume is low and you don’t have other services.

Here’s a link to a free URL shortener from Bitly to try. Use the directions below as your guide.

Step-by-Step Guide to Link Shortening

Sign in to a new or existing Bitly account.Press “b” on your keyboard or click on “Create.”

[Source: Bitly.com]By default, links use the “bit.ly” domain. However, paid subscribers can select a custom field for link branding to change the domain. In the “Paste Long URL” box, paste the URL you want to shorten. Your long URL will automatically change to a short URL. 

[Source: Bitly.com]Click on “CreateIf you want to make changes, you can change the title, add it to a campaign, customize the back half of the link, share or copy the link, and click on edit your link.

[Source: Bitly.com]

URL Shortening Use Cases 

The use cases for short URLs revolve around marketing, branding and analytics. Examples include digital marketing, vanity URLs and campaign analytics. Others are QR codes and SMS marketing. 

URL Shortening for Digital Marketing

URL shortening plays a major role in digital marketing. Shortened URLs stay up to date with different industry tools. Also, they adjust to the latest changes in social media and search engine algorithms. Finally, the shortening services keep up with a wealth of data on how users consume content. 

[Source: Bitly.com]

[Caption] Customizing the back half of a URL gives audiences a preview of where you’re directing them.

Digital marketing supported by short URLs is excellent for marketing efforts like multichannel campaigns, A/B testing, and mobile marketing. Find out more about all the possibilities of short URL-enabled digital marketing. 

URL Shortening for Social Media Marketing 

URL shortening serves social media especially well. It promotes consistent branding across all platforms. As a result, it enables branding with users, potential customers and current customers at every touchpoint.

“Swipe up” links in Instagram Stories, like this one from our Bitly account, lure the audience to the promotion.

Brand building is the cornerstone of any healthy business today. If you use Instagram as part of your social media marketing, you can do even more by adding links to stories.

URL Shortening for Vanity URLs

URL shorteners can create vanity URLs targeted tightly to the brand and content. For example, you can take a long web address and reduce the brand name and a few more characters, making it more memorable. 

[Source: Bitly.com]

Vanity URLs often redirect to another longer URL that contains tracking information. Use vanity URLs on offline and online marketing materials so users can easily remember the URL. Learn more about how to create and use your vanity URLs.

URL Shortening for Campaign Analytics

You can use short URLs to gather campaign analytics. As a result, you can optimize campaigns by seeing what content works best for the target audiences. Shortening services, especially paid ones, can offer in-depth analytics.  

Shortened URLs support easy tracking of multichannel campaign results.

Best-in-class URL shortening services also track organic shares, so you know how content performs no matter who shares it. There are many ways to employ a short URL to strengthen your brand’s campaign management analytics. 

URL Shortening for QR Code Marketing

QR code marketing provides a powerful way to amplify your company’s message. You can place codes on signs, stickers, products and anywhere else you can capture people’s attention.  

QR codes are so adaptable as practical offline marketing tools that you can even wear them.

QR marketing keeps offline content current when you use link redirection. Another plus of QR code marketing is that it is a contact-free vehicle. Look into more features, benefits and marketing impacts of QR codes.

FSH3: URL Shortening for SMS Marketing

Using short links for SMS marketing is an effective way for companies to connect with their target audiences. That’s because people typically read texts more often than email. Once you have customers’ attention, it’s easier to inspire them to action. 

Hustle, a peer-to-peer text messaging service, uses short links to drive response rates and then tracks conversion to show ROI.

To use short links sent via SMS for greater customer engagement, check out some techniques to master. 

Is a URL Shortener Safe?

URL shorteners are safe – if you pick the right service. Reliable services will support advanced security settings to help corporate or government-mandated security policies. They also provide the opportunity to preview destination links.

Hypertext transfer protocol secure (HTTPS) is the secure version of HTTP. URL shorteners support HTTPS and other security settings to satisfy various corporate and government policies. Other policies include Hypertext Strict Transport Security (HSTS) support, Transport Layer Security (TLS) version restrictions, and strict use of algorithms that establish secure connections known as SSL Ciphers.

“Bitly strives to make sure that people with malicious intent cannot impact our customer’s links or content” stresses Raghu Srinivasan, CTO of Bitly. “Our engineering team dedicates itself to ensuring that every link is safe to click on and that the platform is secure and reliable”. He further adds “Every link on Bitly is secured with HTTPS to add an additional layer of security. Finally Bitly’s users can take steps to increase their account security by employing strong passwords and enabling two factor authentication for sign in. Enterprise accounts have even more security with single sign-on (SSO) options and advanced user permissions on the platform”

Another way to gain confidence that your URLs are going to the right place is to preview link destinations. Reputable services make it easy for you to do so. For example, Bitly encourages its customers to preview pages by adding a plus symbol (+) after shortened URLs.

How to Find the Best URL Shortening Service for Your Company

The right URL shortening service can propel your company’s marketing and growth. Some items to consider include scalability, customization, security, integration, analytics and link management.

Here’s a checklist of what to look for in a URL shortening service. A full service will offer these features:

Link management: To handle large volumes, you need to create and manage links at scale. Also, consider whether you can easily redirect them. How will you do that if you want to expire old links manually, correct a destination error, or update a destination?Branded links: Custom domains can replace the “bit.ly” in your links with the name of your choosing so you can take total control of your content. In addition, using your brand in your links lets your audience know they can trust them.Mobile links: You can directly route users to the correct destination from your mobile communications.Analytics: Look for a service that makes it easy to track real-time data and optimize what you learn with best-in-class analytics tools.Integration: Make sure the service moves your workflow along rather than adds to it. Check that the service integrates seamlessly with apps you already use.Security: Make sure your organization’s mission-critical links are in safe hands. Ensure privacy policies and procedures adhere to GDPR and CCPA.QR codes: The ability to generate a QR code for any of your links means you can place your content just about anywhere to connect users to your online experience.Scalability: If you shorten a few web addresses a month, just about any service will do. However, if your company generates hundreds or thousands a month, or you see that level of activity in your future, you’ll want extra capabilities and reliability on reserve.Company reputation and track record: While you might get a good deal (even free) on services, you want to ensure that the company has a good track record of service reliability and customer satisfaction. 

Why Use the Bitly URL Shortening Service?

Whether you’re an established brand or small business, you can start shortening and customizing your links with plans designed to help grow with your success. You need a robust, reliable shortening service to operate effectively at scale. Bitly’s all-in-one platform means you can create, share, monitor and transform links into powerful marketing assets. Bitly features customization, seamless integration with other tools, and high-level security to keep your content safe. Join popular brands that use Bitly, like Disney, The New York Times, ESPN and Gartner. Try out Bitly for free.

URL Shortening 101: How It Works, Use Cases and Examples  appeared first on Bitly | Blog.