As part of the analytics I track on my blog, I keep an eye on the incoming keywords. These are things people have typed into a search engine which ultimately led them to a page on this website. And recently, I’ve seen the same search several times: “Is ow.ly safe?”
Now first, to explain what ow.ly is. Given the character limitations on social networks like Twitter, as well as the ability to share a link with someone that they can remember or write down easily, link shorteners were born. These tools take a big, long link like: http://www.jenfongspeaks.com/why-youre-not-taken-seriously-on-twitter/ and shorten it into this: http://ow.ly/4e0rw. Both links lead to the same place. One is just a lot shorter.
There are lots of tools that do this, such as bit.ly and goo.gl. Some even give you analytics on the shortened URL, so you know how many people have clicked on it. I personally use ow.ly because then I can track the statistics easily through HootSuite, a Twitter management application (although really, it’s more than that.)
So that takes us back to the question: are these tools safe? Can you click on these links with confidence, assured that you won’t end up in a bad place?
The answer is, it depends. Most legitimate URL shortener companies do monitor what is being shortened, and disable links they discover to be harmful. However you need to hope they discover it before you click the link. There are also some tools that enable you to find out what the longer version of a link is before you click. One of these is LongURL: http://longurl.org/
Here are some things to consider when deciding whether or not to click:
- Do you know the source? If someone sends you a short link, and you know them, you may be safe to click. However, if that person never sends you any links, and suddenly does, it may be spam, so be careful.
- What is the context of the link? If a shortened URL shows up without any accompanying text, be careful! Most legitimate link shares provide content that tells you what you’ll get if you click.
- Where did you find the shortened link? If you’re on Twitter, almost every link is shortened. It’s perfectly logical to expect a shortened link there. But if you’re somewhere else, like a link in an email, you might ask yourself why the link is shortened. And that leads you back to points one and two. Who is sending the link, and are you told what you’re linking to?
Link shorteners are highly useful tools, but just like with all links you click on, you need to be sure where you’re going before clicking.
By the way, if you’re interested in learning more about URL shorteners, check out this very detailed article: More Thoughts on URL Shorteners by DeWitt Clinton
Do you use link shorteners? Which one is your favorite? Why? Would love to read your thoughts in the comments.