Why You Shouldn’t Use URL Shorteners in Ads

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:

https://bit.ly/2LQwjlZ

https://bit.ly/2LQwjlZ?utm_campaign=segmetrics-blog

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://segmetrics.io/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://segmetrics.io/awesome/ when the actually link will go to a longer URL like https://segmetrics.io/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.

 

Keith Perhac

Keith is the Founder of SegMetrics, and has spent the last decade working on optimizing marketing funnels and nurture campaigns.

SegMetrics was born out of a frustration with how impossibly hard it is to pull trustworthy, complete and actionable data out of his client's marketing tools.

Getting Ahead with Paid Ads on Facebook and Google

Advertising is not new. In fact, there’s proof that advertising has been around since before modern history. The Egyptians used papyrus to make sales messages and wall posters; the ruins of Pompeii feature political campaign ads.

Yet the industry today looks much different than it did in the pre-modern era… and it continues to evolve.

First there was the print ad — found in newspapers and magazines, beginning in the 19th century. Then there was the Radio ad in the 1920s, followed by television advertising in the 1940s.

Now, more and more, those advertising dollars are making their way online.

In fact, media agency Magna is forecasting that digital media will account for 44% of all ad money spent globally this year — and they’re projecting that it will be 50% by 2020. That’s a projected $237 billion dollars this year, and $291 billion by 2020.

But even online, advertising continues to evolve.

The Three Types of Digital Advertising Used Today

Over half of all digital advertising dollars (51% according to Investopedia) goes to either Google or Facebook, so they are who we’ll focus on for this article.

Each of these services offer several different types of ads — and, as we’ve discussed before, you’ll want to target your ads depending on which service you’re using.

But what kinds of ads do they offer? And how can you utilize each of those types wisely for the best advantage?

The first type of ad each service offers is the one most people think about when they think of ads and the internet: an ad that gets displayed based on demographics.

The principle here is simple — it’s similar to how ads are placed in magazines or newspapers. An advertiser identifies a demographic or demographic information that it feels matches the user or consumer it is trying to reach. Then it pays to show an ad to people who match that demographic information. These may be search ads or a display ads… but in either case, you determine the criteria based on your understanding of your customers.

So, for example, you tell the service in question you want to reach female cat owners between 40-50 years old; or maybe you want to show your ads to people who are searching for “how to tell if my cat is sick.” In either case, you feed that information into the service, and it shows your ad to the users it has that match that data.

Usually, they will have many users who match the data you input, and will show your ads to a lot of people. However, only a small percentage may actually be a good match for your product, and will click through to your site and then make a purchase.

This type of ad is best for reaching cold leads — introducing them to your business and what you have to offer.

The second type of ad each service offers allows you to upload a list of your best customers and then either market to them directly OR ask the system to find user just like your best customers.

On Facebook this is called Lookalike Audiences. In Google’s Adwords it is called Customer Match.

This is pretty powerful stuff.

Instead of you trying to identify demographics and traits your best customers share based on the information you have available about them, you can plug their emails or other identifying information into Google or Facebook, and they will look at all the data they have and do it for you.

You can tell the system to find people who are only 5% different, or who are 10% different from your best customers… and it will.

Think about that for a moment.

As of June 2018, Facebook had an average of 1.47 billion daily active users. 68% of US adults use Facebook, according to Pew research, and they spend an average of 20 minutes on the site per day.

And each time one of those users logs in and likes a page, status update, or watches a funny cat video, Facebook collects data on them. It collects location data, device information, relationship data, and more.

And a quick google search shows that 1.17 billion people use Google search each day.

Google’s own page on what information they collect explicitly states that they collect information on: the things users search for, the sites they visit, the videos they watch, ads they click on, their location, their device usage, their IP address, the emails sent and received, contacts added, calendar events, photos and videos uploaded, docs, sheets and slides on drive, users names, email addresses and passwords, birthdays, gender, phone numbers, country…

That’s a lot of data — and, more importantly, it’s a lot more data that you’d easily be able to collect yourself, which makes this a very powerful tool.

The third type of ad each service offers is a retargeting ad. Retargeting ads show your ad to people who have already clicked on a previous ad or who have visited your website.

Retargeting ads rely on a tiny bit of code that Google or Facebook provides that you add to your website — when that code loads, those services now know that that visitor has been to your site, and they can use that information to show that person ads.

Retargeting ads are a step up from demographic based ads; they’re typically cheaper and typically have a higher ROI. However, they require you to get those visitors to your site first.

You’ve almost certainly experienced these — you click on a video or go to a website, and suddenly ads from that company are following you everywhere. Amazon is particularly notorious for this. You check out a product, or a few products of a specific type, and suddenly you’re seeing Amazon ads for that product everywhere you go.

How to Build a Smart Digital Advertising Strategy

Of course, it takes more than just knowing your options to use these different ad types wisely, and build a successful digital advertising strategy.

Take retargeting ads, for example.

While you could simply show product ads to people who have visited your website, the real power of this type of ad is that you can segment those users by their behavior while they were on your site and show them ads that are related to those behaviors.

Let’s say someone came to your website, looked around a bit, and then clicked over to your pricing page… where they promptly decided to leave.

We could make an educated guess that price was a significant factor in that purchase decision (although price is never the true reason a customer doesn’t buy). You can then add that user to a retargeting list that shows them and any others who followed a similar behavior pattern an ad for a discount.

Take that one step further. What about those shoppers who added a product to their cart, just to abandon it before completing the purchase?

You can use retargeting here, too.

An estimated 75% of all shopping carts are abandoned. Imagine if just a fraction of the customers who abandon their carts were lured back and decided to buy… we’re talking a potentially significant increase in revenue.

In fact, one luxury retailer increased sales 171% with smart retargeting campaigns.

And that’s really just the beginning.

When you use the different types of advertising to feed into each other, you can essentially create a marketing funnel before ever collecting a user’s email address — what I call a “building a pre-nurture funnel.”

But that’s a whole other article.

Which types of advertising have you tried? What results did you see? Is there anything you’ll do differently based on what you’ve read here?

Keith Perhac

Keith is the Founder of SegMetrics, and has spent the last decade working on optimizing marketing funnels and nurture campaigns.

SegMetrics was born out of a frustration with how impossibly hard it is to pull trustworthy, complete and actionable data out of his client's marketing tools.

Off-Again-On-Again: Facebook Brings back URL Dynamic Parameters

Facebook ads has done it again.

After URL Parameters were suddenly removed from Facebook Ads in March of 2018, this cornerstone of ad tracking has been in a serious case of on-again-off-again over the last few months.

So, can you use Dynamic URL Parameters, and are they going to help you make better ads?

The answer to both, is yes.

What are Dynamic URL Parameters?

Dynamic URL Parameters are one of the greatest assets that online advertisers have access to. They allow you to reuse the same tracking snippet for all your ads, and have the ad platform (Facebook, Google and Bing) populate the values in real time.

With Dynamic URL Parameters, when you add the following to your ad:

utm_campaign={{campaign.name}}&utm_content={{ad.name}}

It turns into a link like this when someone clicks on it:

utm_campaign=webinar-campaign-2018&utm_content=blue-ad-with-yellow-logo

And when you check your metrics in Google Analytics or SegMetrics, these values will have been dynamically filled in so that you can see which campaign and ad name generated traffic or conversions on your website.

This lets you track the performance of all your ads, without setting up complicated tracking spreadsheets.

(And even cooler? When you use URL Parameters on a boosted post, they update all the links that are in your post as well)

Why did Dynamic URLs Disappear?

The timing of the Dynamic URLs’ disappearance seems to coincide with the flak that Facebook was getting over the Cambridge Analytica issues, and the senate hearings that Zuckerberg attended.

The original help article about Dynamic URLs was scrubbed, and there were numerous threads both on Reddit and the Facebook developer forums about the issue.

Good News: Dynamic URL Parameters are back.

And since Facebook has reinstated a limited version of the feature, we can see what has been taken out of the Dynamic URL feature to get a glimpse at the issue.

It looks like two features were removed, which were probably why they disappeared in the first place.

  • Ad.source – This showed whether the ad was being displayed on Facebook or Instagram, and was a great way to see where traffic was really coming from.
  • Ignoring Name Updates – This is a little stranger, and may have to do with performance rather than security issues. Dynamic Ad names will be set to whatever the original name of the ad or campaign is, even if you change them later.

So, Can I Use Dynamic URLs Now?

Facebook says YES, and to be honest, I would love to wholeheartedly recommend them as well.

Dynamic URLs are a core part of improving your ad tracking, and lets you easily track the performance of all your lead sources, without having to manage separate spreadsheets of every ad and campaign that you have running.

In fact, here’s our recommended URL Parameter that will allow you the most flexible ad-tracking setup through Google Analytics and SegMetrics:

utm_source=facebook&utm_medium=ppc&utm_campaign={{campaign.name}}&utm_content={{ad.name}}&utm_term={{adset.name}}&ad_id={{ad.id}}

However, Facebook has already pulled the rug out from under us once with Dynamic URLs, and to have all our ads suddenly stop tracking can be a huge blow to our marketing, and one that we wouldn’t notice until days or weeks later.


What do you think? Are Dynamic URLs trustworthy enough to use in production?

PS. Ironically, at the time of writing this article, the Help Doc for Dyanmic URLs is down again.

Keith Perhac

Keith is the Founder of SegMetrics, and has spent the last decade working on optimizing marketing funnels and nurture campaigns.

SegMetrics was born out of a frustration with how impossibly hard it is to pull trustworthy, complete and actionable data out of his client's marketing tools.