Snipping URLs into friendly forms

Online services reduce long Web addresses.

By , Staff Writer

Web addresses (or URLs) can be unwieldy things. Website links that continue beyond the .com can quickly devolve into a mess of slashes, underscores, and alphanumeric gobbledygook, such as CSMonitor.com/2009/0825/p02s01-usgn.html.

To make matters worse, long URLs often get cut off or sliced in half when added to e-mails or text messages. The resulting URL reconstructive surgery is enough to make some give up.

There’s a better way to send cumbersome Web addresses. A crowd of free online services will prune overgrown URLs to something more presentable. The address above slimmed down from 40 characters to 12: bit.ly/uoNRG. Type that wee URL into your Web browser and it will automatically connect you to the same article.

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Brevity is crucial in this day of micromessages, such as Twitter tweets and texts messages that limit the number of characters per post. Our original Monitor link would waste a third of your allotted 140 characters on Twitter.

More than 120 of these URL shorteners exist online, most cropping up in the past few years. But two stand above the rest: TinyURL.com, the original shortener; and Bit.ly, the new market leader with more than 20 million clicks on its trimmed links every day. (The .ly is the online country code for Libya. Bit.ly is an American site, but they used the foreign suffix instead of .com to create a more interesting name – also, bit.com was already taken.)

Creating a short URL is easy. Head to either site, and at the top of the home page is the URL shaver. Type or paste in your oversized Web address, click the button, and the site serves up your freshly sheared link. Each snipped address gets its own short strings of letters to identify it (in our case “/uoNRG”) but some users prefer to pick their own. So, TinyURL and Bit.ly let you suggest a string, such as tinyurl.com/csmspace now gets you to our recent Monitor article on the space shuttle Discovery. You may need to try a few times before coming up with an address that no one has used before.

Bit.ly also goes a step further by providing real-time statistics on how many people clicked on your links, when they did, and where they are from.

Unfortunately, URL shorteners create concerns among some Web watchers. By obscuring the original Web address, hackers could lure people to booby-trapped sites that contain viruses. To protect yourself, stick to the old Internet adage of only clicking on links from people that you know.

Another concern is “link rot.” In June, popular shortener Tr.im said that it would go out of business by the end of the year. Without the service acting as an operator to connect people to the right websites, the many thousands of small URLs that it created would all turn into links to nowhere. Tr.im has since decided to soldier on as long as it can. But with no clear business model other than cheap Google ads, the 120 other shorteners could call it quits at any moment, leaving perhaps millions of broken links in their wake.

To avoid this, only use small URLs for short-term notes, such as quick e-mails or instant messages – things you probably won’t return to a year from now.

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