Have you ever asked yourself why you would need a link shortening service like Bit.ly? You are not alone. The necessity of link shorteners is not obvious – however some of the most surprising marketing tricks can be achieved with link shorteners.
In the old days, the main reason for many for using a link shortener was so that links would not take all of the 140 characters in a tweet. But now that Twitter counts all links the same against its 140 character limit, this reason has disappeared.
Nevertheless, many people still use link shortening services, as you can for examples see in the screenshot on the side, which I took almost at random from one of my Twitter lists.
One interesting thing to note is that many people don’t even realize that they are using link shortening services. We will examine why this is the case later on in this article.
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Through the course of this post, we will cover some of the magic you can do with link shorteners and how your marketing can benefit from this. This will include the following:
- How to use link shortening services to optimize your headlines
- How to gather valuable statistics from these services that will allow you to make better decisions about the content you publish and identify your audience in detail.
- How to use link shortening services to show specific content to specific segments of your audience.
- How to get a custom link shortener on your own domain without breaking the bank or hiring developers
- You will also learn about the most important link shortening tools.
But first, we need to examine what link shortening services are.
What Are Link Shortening Services?
Link shortening services are in fact a very simple form of web service. You feed them a long link like the URL of this article, and they internally connect it to a very short URL:
This shortened URL will then forward the person who clicks on this URL to the long URL. It’s really that simple. The magic happens when because the link shortening services can do various things internally with the two connected URLs.
An Example of the Magic: Why Some People Don’t Even Notice that They Use Link Shorteners?
As I told you before, today, some people fail to notice that they are using link shorteners at all. How can that be?
Well, today many sites are set up in such a way that link shorteners are used as soon as the user takes a specific action. Specifically – almost every site you are on will invoke link shorteners when you click on a share button. Go ahead, feel free to try this on this article by clicking on the share buttons above, or have a look at this screenshot which shows what happens when I press the Twitter button on one of our articles:
So here is what happens:
- A popup opens allowing you to quickly tweet the article.
- The tweet text is prepopulated with the title of the article, out Twitter handle, AND…
- A shortlink of the form: sumo.ly/xxxxxx
Yes, a shortlink. If you quickly press the share button on this article and proceed you can easily miss that you are tweeting a shortlink instead of a real link.
But why is this a shortlink and not the real link?
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We use share buttons provided by a WordPress plugin called SumoMe. The plugin provides us with various tools to add to our site – like popup boxes for newsletter signups, share buttons, heatmaps and more.
When you use the share buttons, they automatically replace all links with their proprietary link shortener. Why? Well, they get several advantages:
- Statistics: Doing this they can measure how often links that have been share via share buttons on a specific site have been shared, clicked and so on.
- They can provide these statistics to the site owner.
- They can also use these statistics for themselves – allowing them to optimize their own systems. This, in turn, benefits the site owners, as the optimization for effectiveness leads to more shares.
Here are some of the statistics provided by SumoMe:
These are the stats for a specific 7-day period using the plugin. This is the social media traffic we achieve through the share buttons provided by SumoMe.
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This example of how share buttons work via link shortening services highlights one of the most important use cases for link shorteners today: Statistics. As you will see in the following part of this post, statistics from link shortening services have now become a vital part of social media and online marketing.
Two More Examples of Using Shortlinks to Gather Stats You Can Use
Here are some more examples of how you can gain statistics through link shorteners and web services.
As you may know, we are huge fans of the social media tool Buffer. Buffer allows you to post links on various social networks. It doesn’t just let you post at once; it also allows you to schedule posts. In the free version of Buffer, this ability is limited to 10 per day.
But today I’m not going to focus on the ability to schedule posts – today it’s about link shorteners and statistics.
When you post a link through Buffer, they replace the link just like SumoMe in the example above. They then measure the data they get through their link shortener and use this data to provide you statistics.
As you can see, Buffer gives you statistics on a per post level. That is highly beneficial to you, as you can directly use this data to increase your traffic! As you Susanna has described in her article here, this data will allow you to test out different headlines for a specific article to find the one that relates best to your audience.
You can also use these statistics to get a better overall feel about which topics your audience is interested in. You can use the data to decide which posts to write in the future, … The possibilities are endless.
An alternative to Buffer is the social media tool Hootsuite – it is more of an all-in-one tool for social media, but it does also let you measure stats via shortlinks. Notice the ow.ly links you often see on Twitter? That is Hootsuite.
Bit.ly is one of the oldest link shorteners that I know of. In fact, back in the day when Twitter counted links against the 140 character limit, almost everyone used Bit.ly.
Bit.ly is a link shortening service that really specializes on shortening links. It’s not social media tool per se; it is a link shortening service. Why should you use Bit.ly? Well, it also shows you statistics – and it does so for every link you shorten with it. So, if you want all data, you gather via shortlinks in one tool you could use Bit.ly.
Bit.ly allows you to access stats to any link you ever shortened with it (as long as you are a registered user, of course). These stats include detailed data on where your post has been shared or linked, how many clicks you got, where the traffic came from geographically and so on.
So, if you want all your stats in one place, for instance, you could shorten every link through bit.ly before posting it through another service.
What’s more – if shortening every link by hand is too much, you can integrate Bit.ly with various other web services. An example that has direct Bit.ly integration is the social media scheduling app SocialOomph, which allows you to have recurring queues of posts.
And even services that don’t have direct integration can be coupled with Bit.ly via IFTTT. Here, for instance, are some recipes that allow you to integrate Buffer with Bitly.
If you don’t know what IFTTT is: It stands for “If This Than That.” It’s a free web service that allows you to connect other web services together. It’s cool – and it can save you a lot of time!
There are many more examples of using shortlinks to gather statistics. Almost any social media tool integrates shortlinks in one form or another, and almost always these are used to gather statistics.
Advanced Statistics – How to Use Google Analytics together with Link Shorteners
With the statistics generated from the tools above, sometimes you run into the following problems:
- Most people use one central tool for gathering statistics about their web traffic: Google Analytics. Just using the tools above you will have to monitor several other places to gather the intelligence you need – which not only increases the workload dramatically, it also makes things very complicated.
- Some web services (for instance Bit.ly) will shorten every link only once for you. If you try to shorten it a second time, it will give you the same link and statistics will be generated for this one link. If you are trying to track different campaigns, this can create a problem.
- Statistics gathered via third-party link shorteners are sometimes a bit inconsistent when compared to Google Analytics or other high profile web tracking tools. The reason for that is mainly that Google Analytics is magnificent at filtering out “unwanted” web traffic, like clicks generated by automatic bots. And since probably around 60% – 90% of all web traffic is caused by bots, this makes a big difference.
So, what do you do when you run into these problems?
When you want to gather statistics about certain campaigns within Google Analytics you can use UTM links. These are links that consist of the URL of the original together with added parameters. Here is an example of how they look like:
Here is a short overview over how UTM links work: The added parameters to the original URL are recognized by Google Analytics. You can use these to specify various parameters about your current marketing campaign and then use Google Analytics to identify all the web traffic that belongs to the campaign. You can find all your traffic that Analytics has identified as traffic belonging to various campaigns under:
Aquisition -> Campaigns
in your Google Analytics Dashboard.
But how do you create these UTM campaign links? Well, meet the UTM link builder by Google:
Sure, you could write the parameters by hand – but that would be a pain. Instead, you can use the URL generator provided by Google (scroll down to find the actual form). This will allow you to paste a URL and enter the various parameters. Mandatory parameters are:
– Source (use for referring sites for instance)
– Medium (use for medium – CPC or banners for instance)
– Campaign (name your campaign)
After you’ve filled these out click on generate and you will have your new link.
Here is the thing: UTM links, contrary to link shorteners, don’t make links shorter. They make them longer.
So if you want to use this link as a shortlink, you will need to use a link shortener with it. There are several reasons to do this:
– Long links can be a pain to work with
– Sometimes you don’t want the people who will click on it to know what they are clicking on
– Posting long links on social networks can be very distracting to the people who see them!
UTM parameters are also very helpful when used in connection with Bit.ly because Bit.ly now allows you to post multiple links that lead to the same source article. This way you can track several links belonging to various campaigns but leading to the same article or URL! All while having all your valuable statistics in one place – Google Analytics.
If you want an even easier way to create UTM links you can use this Chrome Plugin.
SmartURL.it – Shortlinks with a Twist
Until now, all things you could do with a shortlink that I described were largely based on gathering data and using that data.
But what if you could use this data right in the shortlink?
Or if you could send people to different places with a shortlink based on specific criteria – location for instance, or based on whether they are on a mobile device or a desktop? iOS or Android?
Does this sound like this could be of value?
There is one link shortening service I haven’t mentioned before. And this one does allow you to do just that!
It’s called SmartURL.
SmartURL is a link shortener. Although, it’s actually more than a link shortener – it lets you do exactly what I told you about above. It lets you detect the type of device and the OS the device it is running. It also lets you define which country the person clicking is coming from. And it lets you choose which page it should show to the user based on this.
The results are incredible: Let’s say you are marketing an ebook that sells via Amazon. Using the regular link, you would send everybody to a specific page on the local store of a specific country – most of the time the US store at Amazon.com.
Now, whenever somebody from a different country visits this page, he/she would probably have to find the products page on a specific country store to be able to pay for the ebook. What you would lose in conversions would be significant.
With SmartURL you could have specific links to the ebooks by country, increasing your conversion rates significantly.
Another example: Let’s say you are marketing a mobile App selling via the Android and iOS App Stores. When you are sending mobile visitors to these app stores, you could enter the two different URLs to the different stores depending on the specific mobile OS. Or you could create landing pages showing screenshots using the app on the OS the user is using.
Being able to segment your users and show each segment-specific content is highly valuable to any marketer and SmartURL allows you to do just that!
Increase Your Brand Awareness by Using a Custom Link Shortener (using your own domain!)
I’ve got a final piece of magic with link shorteners for you: Get your own link shortener, working with a domain you own! And here is the surprise: You can easily do this without having to do any coding yourself.
Some link shortening services offer this option – the easiest is probably Bit.ly… again. They even give you this option for free as long as you need less than 500 links per month (you still have to buy the domain, though). Pretty cool, right?
All you need to do is buy a short domain name that still looks cool when you see it, make some DNS changes at the domain registering service, activate the option in Bit.ly and you are good to go!
To use this option in Bit.ly you have to login, go to advanced settings and select Branded Links. The DNS changes you need to make are also detailed there.
Whether this is beneficial for your site can depend on a variety of factors including the following:
- Can you integrate this easily in your workflow?
- Can you find a short domain that you can afford and that actually helps your brand?
- Can you use your new domain name effectively or will it get lost in the noise? Will people actually notice?
As you can see, there is a lot of fun to be had with link shortening services – and more than a few of the options above can have an amazing effect on your business as well. Link shortening services are an underestimated tool for marketing. Many people today don’t see the need for them anymore (especially since Twitter started to count every link as 20 characters), not realizing that they could benefit extremely from them without investing too much work.