Shortened URLs, we’ve all seen them, those cute but mysterious tiny URLs that start with bit.ly, goo.gl, ow.ly, or for those who’ve been around a while, tinyurl.com. For some time, the best (perhaps only) way to squeeze an address down to a few scant characters was to use a service like these. However, thanks to numerous projects available from the open source community, you have the choice whether to stick with dedicated services, or install and control your own. Not sure if it’s right for you? Fair enough, just keep in mind that it’s not just for startups, geeks, or vanity-obsessed marketers. Nowadays even big companies have started to get in the shortening game. Notable examples include onforb.es, pep.si, nyti.ms, amzn.com, chn.ge, thebea.st. For a rather extensive list of companies practicing the art, check out vnty.us.

Interesting...how does it work?

Wikipedia explains it thusly:

“URL shortening is a technique on the World Wide Web in which a uniform resource locator (URL) may be made substantially shorter in length and still direct to the required page. This is achieved by using an redirect on a domain name that is short, which links to the web page that has a long URL.”

 

In case any of this explanation seems overly esoteric, another more familiar way to think of it is like creating an alias or shortcut on your desktop to a file hidden deep within your computer. The alias makes it quicker, easier to access the file, while the file itself remains completely unchanged.

Got it! Now, why should I use them?

While you may certainly find other reasons to do so, we felt the following reasons were compelling enough to use them:

  • Sharing links via social media and where character count is of concern.
  • Including links in text emails where the address is shown in full rather than contained in a link tag. Short addresses means less clutter and more focus on the content.
  • Keeping links from breaking when they contain spaces. A lot of modern software will convert pasted URLs into clickable links, but sometimes will only convert up to a space, leaving off what might be an important part of the address.
  • Could prove helpful for tracking promotions
  • Creating something nice and short when you’re sharing via printed materials (business cards, fliers, billboards, etc.)

Cool! Tell me more about the vanity solutions.

There are many solutions available that allow you to create a custom short URL for your business. We chose an open source project called YOURLs, but it’s only one of many, not to mention those offered by the dedicated shortener services (ex. bit.ly).

This list of benefits is certainly not exhaustive, but we felt there were a few key reasons for having our own shortener service:

  • Branding! Not only will a vanity URL help promote your brand instead of someone else’s, putting your name on the line should help convey a feeling of trust that the encapsulated link is free of bad things, which may just lead to…
  • Reduced click apprehension, or the idea that a given shortened URL may link to something of a less than savory nature.
  • Greater control over the service. While the big players are unlikely to vanish or change drastically for the worse any time soon, having your own service pretty much ensures neither of these scenarios come to bear.

Okay, this sounds pretty cool. How do I set up a service of my own?

As mentioned before, we chose YOURLs to provide the infrastructure for jebco.de, our dinky base URL. Here are some details on how to do it yourself:

  • Look for the shortest URL that makes sense for your brand. I suggest using DomainHole’s Complete Check feature. And don’t limit your Top-Level Domain (TLD) search to your own region of the world! Interesting combinations can occur when you allow for something other than .com, .net, .org, and the other usual suspects.
  • Once you find something you like and that’s still available, pick a domain registrar and snatch that puppy up! Be aware that if you’re looking to purchase a TLD that represents a country other than your own (usually referred to as a ccTLD), you may have to find a registrar that allows international registrations. One we recommend is IWantMyName…simple, fast, reasonably priced, with a ton of TLDs from which to choose.
  • Create a new MySQL database specifically for YOURLs. Your shortened URLs may see a lot of hits so it’s best that traffic is applied to a dedicated database and not one that supports your website or other application.
  • Download the latest release of YOURLs, unzip the files and find the “user” directory. Find and rename the “config-sample.php” file to “config.php” and open it for editing.
  • Open the “readme.html” file in your favorite browser and follow the Config instructions therein. Once you’re done setting up the configuration file, save it and FTP all of YOURLs files to a new directory on your site host (this may take a little while).
  • Create a new .htaccess file in the root directory and be sure it contains these lines. If you’ve never created an .htaccess file before, it’s no problem. Just do the following:
    • Create a new text file on your desktop and name it htaccess.txt
    • Copy and paste the content from the link above into the file, save, and close
    • Upload this new text file via FTP to the root directory of your YOURLs install and rename the file “.htaccess”…remove the quotes and don’t forget the leading dot!
      • At this point, your new file might disappear (depends on whether your FTP application has the ability the view hidden files and that feature is enabled), but that’s okay. It’s just hidden from view as it should be.
  • Install YOURLs by visiting the admin dashboard at [your-custom-domain]/admin. If your installation is like ours, it will have appeared to fail on creating the required database tables. I found, however, that it’s merely an incorrect report because a quick look at the actual database will show the tables have indeed been created.
  • For additional functionality and security, I’d start by installing the following plugins:
    • Anti Spam by Ozh
    • Google Safe Browsing by Ozh (requires a free Google API key)
    • Google Analytics by Katz Web Services
    • Show plugin code modifications
    • For WordPress users, download and install the YOURLs Link Creator plugin
      • Enter your custom URL in the appropriate field
      • Enter your YOURLs API (visit the Tools panel of your YOURLs dashboard, scroll about halfway down for the string)
  • Lastly, while in your YOURLs Tools panel, be sure to drag one of the bookmarklets to your browser’s bookmark bar. Now any time you visit a page, and want a shortened URL, just click the bookmarklet and voila!

If you end up with a vanity shortener, or setting up your own service and this article helped you, we’d love to read your story!

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