I’ve long been concerned about the proliferation of “short URLs”, whose use has gathered great momentum, especially in the light of microblogging services like Twitter.

tinyurl-example1

Short URLs, such as those generated by TinyURL are convenient, especially when you only have 140 characters to get your message across. You can turn a huge URL, many hundreds of characters long, into just 25 characters or even less. Great!

Besides TinyURL, a proliferation of URL shortening services are available. Some that come to mind are bit.ly, tr.im, ow.ly, is.gd, to name but a few. And short URLs themselves are gaining use outside of microblogging services. You will see them in blog posts, emails (to get around the line-wrap-broken-link problem) and even on the printed page (see British Archaeology magazine).

But what happens if a short URL service were to disappear? The company or individual that runs it pulls the plug, and suddenly the web is littered with thousands or even millions of dead links. That would be bad. And it will happen.

I see the state of short URLs as a delicate balance. On one side, we have the originating (possibly long) URL. On the opposite side, we have the short URL. Hopefully, the original URL will work for many years. When I migrated the Wessex Archaeology website to a new CMS last year, I didn’t break any links. Some of those links have worked for more than 7 years, and I hope that they will still work in another 7. WA can make sure that they stay the same (and they will). But what happens to any shortened links that point to those pages? We can’t guarantee that same amount of longevity.

tinyurl-in-print

What happens to the TinyURL links in the printed magazine British Archaeology if TinyURL goes bust? They’ll break. But BA is available in many libraries and people do look at back issues. It would be nice if they could see the web pages mentioned in the articles, but there’s no guarantee that they will work because there are two parts of the equation that could go wrong. One, is that TinyURL disappears, the second is that the originating page is deleted or changes its URL without redirecting.

For short URLs that I create I would like my own control over at least part of that equation.

I’ve often heard the argument that the use of short URL services are only meant to be temporary, for links that are “here and now”. But how often have you come across something old, but still relevant, when doing a web search? For me, that’s a fairly frequent occurrence. Who’s to say what is quick and temporary today, isn’t actually really quite relevant and useful in the future?

By running my own URL shortening service, I won’t change what is being used elsewhere, but at least people looking at my Twitter stream, or wherever those tweets are syndicated to (this blog, for example), have a better chance of seeing what I’m linking to in a few years time. Especially if I plan to run my personal URL shortening system for as long as I’m alive and capable.

I suppose that one of the driving forces behind this is my training as an archaeologist (we don’t like throwing things away, generally, and that includes data). I can’t archive the pages I link to, but at least I can give folks in the future a better chance of finding what I’m linking to.

I have a nice short URL thanks to the .eu top level domain, so I will experiment with some different systems to see which works out – the simpler and easier to maintain the better. It’s got to last a long time…

[Edit] When I say “creating my own URL shortening service” I should clarify that I’m not programming one from scratch, but taking an existing GPL/Open Source URL shortener and modifying it for my needs (if it needs modifying)! I will probably have a public and private version, with varying functionality. Some good ideas are already flowing in through Twitter about identifying canonical URLs, which is great 🙂

[Update] My URL shortener is alive: http://qurl.eu/ (think “curlew”, like the bird). It is based upon TightURL, and I chose it because of its ability to use various blacklists to reduce misuse. I will run qurl.eu for as long as I can – i.e. for as long as is technically feasible to do so.