The Beginner’s Guide to URL Shorteners: How to Shorten and Track Links for Social Media

I sometimes feel like URL shorteners are some of the most understated tools in internet marketing, and there have been more than a few times that I wished I’d had someone share some advice on URL shorteners earlier in my marketing career.

For instance:

What do you do with really long links?

What if you want to track the results?

What if the link—long and unwieldy—upstages the content?

So, if you’re new to the world of URL shorteners—much like I’ve been—here’s a list of things you may find helpful to know!

About URL shortening …

If you’re new to the social media marketing space, you’ve probably caught on to one of our dirty little secrets.

Links can be a little unwieldy sometimes.

They can get long.

long url string

They can get a little complex (especially when you’re tracking them).

long url

Sometimes they can be a bit distracting.

tracking url

And if you’re trying to share helpful information with a growing audience, then you don’t want the links to all that golden content to upstage your efforts!

Thank goodness for URL shorteners.

(Here’s an example, with pomeranians, of a long link that’s been shortened to buff.ly/1irhfHu.)

//platform.twitter.com/widgets.js

These super-simple tools can save you a good deal of headache when it comes to keeping track of your links. Plus, they make our tweets, statuses, and other updates look super clean.

Where & how can you shorten URLs?

Fortunately, we have tons of great tools at our disposal for shortening URLs, including the native networks and dashboards we use every day.

In terms of tools, there are some neat sites that handle URL shortening, including full analytics and archives of everything you shorten. For these services (and for URL shortening in general), your URL is replaced by a new domain (e.g., kevanlee.com changes to bit.ly) and the permalink is replaced by a string of numbers and/or letters (e.g., kevanlee.com/best-writing-articles changes to bit.ly/df8jpI1).

Here are handful of the more popular link shortening services:

Here’s what it looks like when you use goo.gl, Google’s URL shortener:

google shortener

At goo.gl, bit.ly, and others, not only do you get a nice, clean, shortened URL, you also get stats on clicks for all the URLs you shorten.

In addition to these shortening tools, many social networks and social media management dashboards also provide a way to shorten long URLs automatically.

For instance, any link shared to Buffer will be shortened automatically once it’s added into your update.

buffer shortened url

You can choose to use Buffer’s own “buff.ly” shortener, or the shorteners at bit.ly, j.mp, or custom solutions.

Twitter automatically shortens links as well. There are a few different ways this might happen: Twitter uses it’s own t.co shortening service often on link shared on mobile devices, Twitter will sometimes include the full URL (minus the http:// part) if it doesn’t bump up against character count, or Twitter will truncate the link after showing the domain and part of the permalink. In the example below, the shortened link is 32 characters long.

Screen Shot 2015-10-31 at 6.58.40 AM

Why should you shorten your links anyway?

Of course, if you’re new to the URL-shortening game, it might be good to take a quick spin through the reasons (and ways) we use URL shorteners in the first place. One of the biggest and best reasons:

URL shorteners save character count

You don’t always have unlimited space for a message. Twitter is the most famous example: you get 140 characters per tweet. The problem for Internet marketers? An everyday URL can take up half of that length. (Or more!)

For example, if you wanted to share this fantastic article on how to get your first 1,000 followers on any social network, you’d have to work with a rather long URL:

How to Get Your First 1,000 Followers on Every Major Social Network

Whoa. That’s 77 characters long—more than half a tweet’s worth! It barely leaves any room for descriptive commentary . . . let alone a witty throwaway joke.

And if you wanted to add UTM tracking codes to the link?

How to Get Your First 1,000 Followers on Every Major Social Network

Eep!

146 characters! (Longer than the max length of a tweet!)

Now, the good news is that Twitter automatically shortens links, as do many social media management tools—including Buffer.

Let’s say I were to shorten the link above. I could come away with something like this:

http://buff.ly/1VI7t0I

Hey, that’s only 22 characters. That leaves me plenty of room to share one of my favorite insights from the article!

6 ideas for how to use URL shorteners in your marketing

1. Make links more memorable with a custom, short domain

If you ever happen to visit the Twitter feed for Moz, you might notice something unique about their links.

They’re using a custom short URL: mz.cm.

Cool!

So links like this:

https://moz.com/blog/announcing-mozcon-local-2016

Become links like this:

http://mz.cm/1gpgLAJ

This can be a really great opportunity to extend some branding into the shortened links you share on social media. And at the very least, it could make for a fun experiment to see if it helps up the engagement on your updates (I’ve heard some folks fare better with custom short URLs, some do better with full URLs, and some do better with buff.ly or bit.ly URLs.)

Kevan put together this quick video on how to set up a custom short domain. You can buy custom short domains from sites like Name.com and set them up to automatically shorten your links with bit.ly and Buffer.

And the result:

//platform.twitter.com/widgets.js

2. Track all the clicks, see how things change over time

Shortening links is valuable in and of itself—but how do you know people are clicking them?

Good news! Some URL shorteners let you track those links, too. =) There are a few ways these links tend to be tracked:

Some URL shorteners track the links themselves.

Bitly is a fantastic example of this. Bitly shows you how many times one of your links has been clicked, where the link has been shared, and how other Bitly-shortened links (Bitlinks) are driving traffic to the same content.

Here’s an example of what that looks like: bitly stats

bitly stats chart

Some URL shorteners automatically attach Google Analytics tracking data.

Granted, you can manually add UTM tracking codes to any link, and then shorten them down with a basic link shortener. But some tools will let you preset those tracking codes and then automatically append them to whatever links you shorten.

This is where the Buffer link shortener really shines, in my opinion. If you’re using the Buffer for Business plan, then you can easily (and automatically) add UTM tracking codes to any link you share with Buffer. I’ll show you exactly how to do this later on in this post! =)

3. Customize a shortened bit.ly link

One thing I love about Bit.ly’s link shortening service is the ability to name short URLs. This means we can turn a link like this:

http://bit.ly/1LYGfyq

Into something that reflects the content of the link itself:

bit.ly/tips-4-tw (a link to an article on twitter tips)

Customizing a shortened link can be a fantastic way to give people a little bit of context for where they’ll go when they click that tiny link.

4. Add a shortened URL to your video

If you’re running an ad campaign that directs people to a certain website, you’ll want people to remember where they’re supposed to go.

That can be tricky when you’re dealing with a long, long URL. But a link shortener can make online destinations a great deal easier to remember.

For example, I’m writing this article as Facebook launches its killer new Lead Ads feature. It’s a sweet new way to do targeted advertising.

But all the sweet info about it is on a page with a pretty long URL:

https://www.facebook.com/business/a/lead-ads

A long URL like that might not be a problem—except that Facebook is educating people about this new feature through a video. And I don’t know about you, but I’d have a rough time remembering this URL after watching a video. <img src="http://s.w.org/images/core/emoji/72×72/1f609.png&quot; alt="

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