URL Shortening services are the lifeblood of Twitter. With short URLs you can share links on Twitter in abundance without having to worry too much about breaking the 140 character limit.
And, just like links are branding opportunities, so are short URLs. Yes, you only have a few characters to work with in a short domain, but why not make optimal use of it and make it a branded short URL?
Some examples of great short URLs that manage to spread the owner’s brand further on twitter are nyti.ms for the New York Times, yoa.st for Yoast (Joost de Valk) and selnd.com for Search Engine Land.
I too have been using custom short URLs for a little while: bada.ms for my own personal tweets and recently I set up prc.ms for my company Pierce Communications.
For bada.ms I used the Yourls.org service, and for prc.ms I opted to use the bit.ly pro URL shortening system. Now that I’ve worked with both I thought it would be a good idea to compare the two and see which type of URL shortening solution is best for which situation.
The Third Party Solution – bit.ly Pro
With a system like bit.ly pro the hard work is done for you. All you need to do is register your short domain, apply for bit.ly pro, and once you’re approved you need to set the A-record of your short domain to a specific IP address that bit.ly provides.
Once all that is completed and verified, you can start using your short domain immediately. There’s one caveat: the free bit.ly pro version is tied to one bit.ly account, which means only those who have the account’s login details can use it.
Bit.ly pro works very well with all third party Twitter apps, and also has a number of handy bookmarklets to integrate it directly in to your browser.
The analytics provided by bit.ly pro are quite extensive, with real-time reporting of clicks happening on your short URLs, as well as a long-term report that goes back 30 days. Bit.ly pro gives you aggregate reports showing your total clicks on all shortened URLs, as well as the individual performance of each short URL separately.
The analytics are rounded off with country and referral reports, showing where the clicks came from and what client systems they used.
Bit.ly also offers an Enterprise version of their system, which (among other features) ensures that all URLs on your website that are shortened with bit.ly use your branded short URL. They call it ‘end-to-end branding’ and this is interesting for organisations that publish a lot of content and want to make sure their brand is recognised on Twitter. Companies like the New York Times and The Onion use this solution, as does Search Engine Land. But at $995 a month it’s not for everyone.
The Self-Hosted Solution – Yourls.org
With a self-hosted solution like Yourls you have much more control over exactly how the URL shortener works. But it’s not as straightforward to set up, a bit more technically challenging to use, and has less complete analytics functionality.
To get Yourls.org working you need to set up a hosting account for your short URL which supports PHP and MySQL. After you’ve set up a MySQL database, you can upload and install the Yourls.org package.
Set-up is brief and straightforward with only a few variables to fill in, but you will need to do a bit of digging here and there to get it working exactly how you want it. The basic functionality of Yourls does the job well, but you’ll probably want to customize things a bit. This you can do with plugins, such as the Random Keyword plugin which creates random short URLs for you, and the Don’t Log Bots plugin which filters automatic ‘clicks’ from 3rd party apps in your analytics.
One very handy option in Yourls which could elevate it over Bit.ly pro for some users, is that you have full control over the length of the custom short URL you’re creating. Where bit.ly always attached 6 characters to the domain to create a short URL, with Yourls you can suffice with just one character if you so fancy. This enables you to make your short URLs very short indeed.
The analytics offered by Yourls are slightly less impressive than Bit.ly Pro’s as they lack aggregate reporting. This means you’ll have to look at the performance of each link individually, which makes it hard to discern any global trends in click behaviour, referrals and countries of origin. But other than that Yourls offers similar real-time statistics on your clicks, as well as handy bookmarklets and a secure API that you can use to integrate your shortener in twitter apps like Tweetdeck.
One more added feature of Yourls is that you can make it a public URL shortening service, so that others can also use it – and thus your brand can be spread even further on Twitter.
While Bit.ly is a well-rounded solution with plenty of features, it lacks the full measure of control you get with Yourls. Bit.ly Pro’s analytics are slightly better, but in my view it’s only the preferred option if you can pay for the Enterprise version and enable end-to-end branding.
If you can’t afford $995 a month, the choice becomes very straightforward: the vastly greater control you have with a self-hosted solution like Yourls makes it the superior option for a custom short URL service.
So my advice would be to get a short domain, get a hosting account, and install Yourls or a similar package. That way you own it completely, and you can customise your short URL service to your heart’s content.