Short Links

Which URL Shortener Is Right For You?

With so many URL shortening scripts, open source and hosted solutions out there, we at Shorten.REST thought it may be helpful to educate you on all the things you should be mindful of when you are searching for the right URL Shortener for your needs.

1. Free Vs. Paid

We love FREE. I mean, who doesn’t? The only true problem with a free service is, well that it’s free. By definition – if you are getting a free service – the service provider doesn’t have any material obligation to service you indefinitely. At any given moment, even giant companies like Google, can decide that they are shutting down their service and cutting it off for all users. If you are looking for a limited time usage – a free service could serve you right. However, if  you are looking for a long term solution for your company, we recommend seeking a paid service that specializes in providing such services.

2. Cost of operations

Under this section we will be comparing the following 2 scenarios:

  1. You are planning to host your URL Shortener solution yourself – open source or purchased
  2. You have considering a managed SaaS solution

While comparing these 2 solutions may seem a bit tricky there are only 3 cost factors you should be mindful of:

  • Running cost – the amount of money it will cost you to keep the URL Shortener server up and running
  • API Computing cost – CRUD URL operations – the amount of money it will cost you to generate a new URL or updating an existing one
  • Traffic cost (bandwidth) – the amount of money it will cost you to pass clicks through your links

A typical hosted setup would look somewhat like this: $20/month for a server + however much for the traffic you are using.

More often than not generalized open source scripts won’t necessarily meet your specific needs. For example you may end up paying more for each one of the factors above (or all), simply because the script was not tailored and optimized to handle the volume of traffic, links or users your company needs. So although tempting to think that you could get by with a very simple setup, you may end up having to overcompensate with stronger servers or pay more to generate links and run traffic because your setup is not optimal.

Choosing to go with a managed solution means you are agreeing to pay a fixed, known cost for the consumption you use. Most SaaS companies will charge a monthly subscription fee and increment it based on your consumption. Common variables include clicks, urls, api calls, domains, ssl or even user seats. 

While SaaS solutions may seem to cost more in reality, with the right choice of a subscription plan a SaaS solution may end up costing less!

3. Cost of maintenance

Like anything in life – web apps require maintenance. Whether it’s updating scripts, plugins, servers, modules or integrations – all of these can range between a quick “1-click-upgrade” to a “near disaster” DevOps issue that could take up hours (if not days) of the most qualified engineers to resolve.

If you chose to host your own solution, a reasonable rule of thumb would be to expect that you would need to commit at least one engineer part time just to make sure everything is working without interruptions. Of course – if you URL shortener is being heavily used you may need to consider a greater support staff to keep working on it to withstand load, scale and latency issues as the demand for the service grows or fluctuates over time.

4. Link customization abilities

When someone talks about customizing a URL shortener solution they could either be talking about customizing the user experience or the short URLs capabilities.

The first thing you want to be able to customize is the overall experience. This includes user management features, integrations, analytics reports and workflows that are available to the user who needs to create links.

The second is the heart of your URL Shortener engine – the customization options for the short URL itself – how it looks and how it behaves. This includes everything that happens between the time an end user clicks on the short link and the moment they land on the destination URL.

Popular link customization abilities include: 

  • The option to edit the alias (aka URL)
  • Ability to update and change the destination after the short URL was already created
  • Ability to assign GEO specific destination
  • Mobile specific destination
  • Mobile deep links
  • Firing retargeting pixels on the click
  • Passing through UTM’s dynamically
  • Capturing unique data (analytics) en route 

Choosing to have the right mix of customization abilities is not only wise, but also vital in our ever-evolving internet. In a medium that is constantly redefining itself, you should be mindful that your needs will also evolve quickly and rapidly. We strongly recommend that when you examine your current short URL needs, try to project a few years into the future – where do you expect your needs to be then?

5. Shortening limits

When examining any solution you should be mindful of how often you expect to use it. If you are looking for infrequent usage, most free plans will suffice.

Daily usage might get you leaning towards a paid or hosted solution. ourly or constant usage might have you looking into various API or programmatic, automated solutions.

For the purpose of this exercise we will assume you are looking at automated solutions and recommend you check the following limits:

  1. How many links can you create concurrently (API call limit)
  2. How many clicks can be served concurrently? (traffic peak)
  3. What is the minimum amount of characters you can use on a short URL alias
  4. What is the maximum amount of characters you can input in the destination URL (UTM support)
  5. How many retargeting pixels / meta tags can you add to each link

6. Ease of workflow

One of the most important things to consider when evaluating a URL Shortener is – How easy it is to use?!

When evaluating a solution you should consider all the different ways you are going to interact with it. Think about how you plan to create new links, how will you extract click data and derive insights about the campaign?

7. Features

It might surprise you but not all URL shorteners offer the same features. One of the most popular URL shorteners out there – TinyURL – doesn’t have any features at all!

Most commercial URL Shorteners specialize in a specific audience type or type of links. Some offer unique features that apply only to one specific markets, while others offer a plethora of features, but may lack in other fronts such as scalability, cost or customer service.

At the very least when you are evaluating a URL Shortener – make sure the feature set includes the ability to add your own domain, have an SSL certificate for that domain and be able to edit destinations as you go. The last thing you want is to publish a link and realize you have to update the destination without being able to do so!

8. Security

Cyber security has become one of the fastest growing industries in the past few years. Making sure the URLs you share with your audience are safe and secure is getting more and more attention these days. From Google’s latest policy towards non-secured websites and links and favoring https pages to companies like facebook that offer secure, encrypted chat communication in their messaging apps like WhatsApp.

For this reason (and many others) we recommend to use your own branded domain and refrain from using any free short URL domains that are shared among millions of users. Services such as Bit.ly, Goo.gl, Rebrand.ly, Tinyurl.com and others have been known to be abused by hackers, scammers and criminals to distribute phishing scams, malware, spyware and adware and have been added to the known listed of blacklisted URL Shortener domains.

If you put yourself in your end user’s shoes – how can they tell if the link you shared with them is any different than a dangerous one if they are both using the same domain?

To make matters worse – Most public URL shorteners use Case Sensitive alias (also know as vanity or URI) which means that the links like bit.ly/acdSimdE and bit.ly/acdSimde will lead to 2 totally different destinations because the training E is different.

Moreover, if you omit the trailing E that also becomes a totally different link. It’s easy to imagine a situation where you are sharing a valuable piece of information with your audience and, because of a simple typo, they may land on a totally different destination that another user created the link for?

Considering people shorten all types of URLs – from adult content to cat images – save yourself a potential embarrassment and make sure you never use those services again.

Using your own domain will allow you to earn your users trust, secure the links with an SSL certificate and ensure you have total control over the click path. If any user clicks on an alias that doesn’t exist you can reroute them to an error page you own and control – rather than take the chance they will land on an inappropriate piece of content.

9. Analytics Depth

Not all users are aware of the insights you can learn from a good analytics tool. Some just want to make sure their links get clicked in absolute numbers, others may care about clicks within a specific time frame or GEO. While many URL Shorteners offer rudimentary data, the higher end ones may offer in depth tracking of user agent data such as device, browsers & OS, up-to DMA’s, ISP, Connection type and customer conversion tracking.

Whatever your needs are – the more data you have at your disposal – the more insight you and your team may be able to derive from your traffic’s behavior.

10. Quality of API

As a company that is dedicated to creating enterprise grade API micro services, we cannot stress enough about why the quality of an API is so important. The ability to rely on a robust, trustworthy API is not something to consider lightly.

If you are using an API to shorten links the last thing you want is for your custom, complex integration to ever break. The more simplified and user friendly the API endpoints and documentation are, the easier and faster it will get your development team to build, maintain and troubleshoot any errors in your custom integration and workflow.

11. Integrations

URL Shortener integrations are not just nice to have. In today’s complex marketplace a good integration, app or connector could mean the difference between wasting countless hours automating processes and  having a smart funnel and automation recipe up and running in minutes.

Power integrations save you time and money that would have gone to waste on custom developing your solution. Common integrations you may find are browser extensions, mobile apps, API marketplace connectors for platforms such as Zapier, RapidAPI, etc. Common connectors could be to popular CRM, ERP and Visualization tools such as SalesForce, SAP, Tableau, Google Data Studio and Power BI.

Whatever your needs may be – relying on a URL shortener that has more integrations that others might end up saving you a lot of time and money.


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