URL shorteners like Bit.ly were hailed as the greatest thing to happen to social media and PPC since Bing Crosby tap-danced with Danny Kaye.
URL Shorteners gave us a ton of benefits. In one simple URL we could:
- Track how many people clicked
- Where it was shared from
- Append UTM values and easily manage all the tracking in one simple system
And when Twitter still counted links towards your 140 character limit (they don’t any more), it made sense that we wanted a short, easy to understand link that we could use in our social media posts.
The problem comes when we started adding PPC ads to the mix, and take into account how URL shorteners have changed over the last few years.
Here are the major issues with using URL Shorteners with PPC advertising:
1. Shortened URLs don’t pass tracking information to the final domain
One of the great things about PPC Ads is that you can add a plethora of tracking information to each ad that you create.
This allows you to have fine-grained tracking of how each ad performs, even if all the ads point to the same page.
(You can also add URL Dynamic Parameters to Facebook, Google and Bing to make tracking even easier! Set it up once, and all your ads will be automatically tracked).
This doesn’t work with shortened URLs, which clobber the UTM and Tracking values that are added to each ad, which means that you need to create a separate Short URL for each ad that you create, removing the point of the URL shortener in the first place.
You can test it here:
All that wonderful Ad Tracking? Gone.
2. URL Shorteners are often used by Spammers, and have a lower trust rating that standard URLs.
People like to know what they’re clicking on, and studies have shown that using link shorteners reduces trust in where they’re going to be sent when they click the link.
3. URL Shorteners reduce the amount of control you have over your URL
In some cases, legitimate short URLs are reported as spam. Because URL Shortening services like Bit.ly need to protect their own SEO and business, they’ll disable those links in order to avoid getting on spam blacklists.
4. Link Shorteners redirect users through multiple sites, which creates slowdown
Scott Hanselman wrote an interesting article about the number of redirects that occur when you use a shortened link. He traced 7 redirects through the shortened URL before he got to the final URL.
The fact is that link shorteners are a business, and they make money by sending users through multiple analytic and domains to install tracking cookies for various ad networks.
What You Should do Instead
I’ll admit it — URL Shorteners are handy, especially if you want to give out a simple link that everyone can follow. But it’s important to take a step back and look at the business needs for a link shortener, and see if existing link-shortening services like Bit.ly actually address them.
A short URL has the following benefits:
- Default Tracking – It’s good to be able to have default UTM values added to these special links automatically, so that you can track where people come from and how they go through your system. However, you don’t want that tracking to erase any UTM values you might want to pass in, so that you can re-use the short URL in various ads and campaigns.
- Easy on the eyes – Similar to being memorable, a short URL makes people think that the link is at a top-level-page, and is thus more important than a low-level page with a long URL.
Looking at the above, it’s clear that shorter URLs have a number of benefits, but 3rd Party Shorteners fall… short…
On top of that, Google is discontinuing their URL shortener in March, 2019. And while the links won’t go POOF, it should make us very aware of how much power over our business we’ve given to a 3rd party.
Solutions for better PPC URL Tracking
Here’s what you should do to make sure that your links are future proof and that you’re able to keep tracking PPC.
1. Use “natural” links when possible.
I’m a big proponent of having PPC-versions of any content that you’re going to be sharing, instead of pointing it to a generic blog page. This lets you customize the CTAs and visuals of the page much more than a standard blog post, and lets you use a top-level url like https://segmet.wpengine.com/bonus/calculate-lead-value/
2. Use the “Display URL” feature in Ads
All ad networks allow you to set a “Display URL” in addition to the main URL. This is the URL that people looking at the ad will see, so you can have people see the link as something short and memorable like https://segmet.wpengine.com/awesome/ when the actually link will go to a longer URL like https://segmet.wpengine.com/articles/infusionsoft-expert-roundup/
4. Set up your own URL Shortener
Depending on your setup, there are a number of ways to set up your own URL shorteners. This has the benefit of using your own domain name, with all the benefits of a tracking-focused URL shortener.
- WordPress Plugins – There are are a number of great redirection plugins that will work if you’re using WordPress. We recommend Pretty Links or Redirection, both of which allow you to set up default tracking values and then override them on a per-link basis.
- Stand-alone Systems – If you’re not running WordPress, or want to keep the redirection separate from your main marketing site, you can use any multitude of free, open source link shorteners on your site. We’ve released a simple to use (and FREE) url redirector you can install on any server and have up and running in less than 10 minutes.
For the ultimate in branded shortening, you can get a custom short domain from a registrar like Namecheap, and point it to one of the redirection pages above. For example, SegMetrics uses the short URL mtr.cx, which we have hooked up to our open-source redirection system (above).
URL Shorteners are a double-edged sword, but it should be clear that if you’re using short URLs for ad tracking (or any time when you may be re-using the same URL), you should either use the natural URL, or switch over to a redirection system that you control.