As the URL burns: The short-link soap opera

Tr.im creator Eric Woodward is bitter about Bit.ly, and not completely without cause.

Eric Woodward, creator of the short URL service Tr.im, painted his product into a corner when he announced first, that he was going to take it offline , and then a few days later that he wasn't . Nobody wants to trust their Web links to a capricious business that could go offline again, and take working links and traffic with it.

On August 17, Woodward put a fresh coat on the prior week's drama with a new gambit: He said he was giving the service to the community. In the bitter post announcing this plan, he continued to claim that due to the fact that Twitter made Bit.ly the default URL shortener for the service, a product like Tr.im has no real chance for success. Related, he says, is the recent announcement of the 301works archive for short URLs , which he sees as a craven publicity stunt to boost Bit.ly, since the same people behind it are also running 301works.

Woodward says that the Internet needs an open link-shortening service, because the traffic data short URLs generates is too valuable to entrust to a single company. "You can't get the aggregate data on what's being shared in real time by everyone," he told me. "Twitter wants to become a real-time search engine, so the data Bit.ly is capturing is very valuable."

(Bit.ly data is currently wide open, at least on an individual URL basis. Simply append "+" to a Bit.ly link to get traffic stats on it. Woodward wants to see a "fire hose" of short URL data, however.)

A Twitter keiretsu?
Woodward does have reason to be envious and even suspicious of the Bit.ly-Twitter relationship, although it's difficult to draw the connection all the way to malfeasance on the part of the two companies. And it's hard to believe that his strident posturing will win him much support outside of a small group of the most zealous open-source boosters.

Several powerful companies in the Twitter ecosystem are inter-related. Bit.ly's CEO is John Borthwick, and Borthwick is also CEO of Betaworks. Betaworks helps build companies in the social-messaging space. It incubated Summize, the Twitter search engine Twitter acquired last year, and through that deal Betaworks remains connected to Twitter. Betaworks has also worked with Tweetdeck -- which also uses Bit.ly as the default link shortener. The company has several other Twitter (and Facebook) projects running right now. Suffice it to say that if you're in Betaworks' network, you've got great access to Twitter. If you're competing with a Betaworks portfolio company to get Twitter's attention, you've got a tough road ahead.

Betaworks is one of the drivers of the 301works short URL data project, and it's the relationship between Bit.ly and 301works that led Woodward to shun the project, at least for now. "There's nothing wrong with it in theory, but it doesn't solve the link rot problem," Woodward said. He added, "Why would I give them the publicity?"

A tight network of businesses doesn't necessarily build bad or evil products. When Twitter was looking to replace TinyURL as the default link shortener on the Twitter.com site (because TinyURL was not reliable enough, a source says), company execs had very stringent reliability, security, and real-time requirements for the project. Bit.ly iterated its product to live up to most of Twitter's specs. Indeed, its real-time link analysis is something Tr.im doesn't offer, and while Tr.im's Woodward told me that most users have no interest in real-time stats, clearly if real-time data was a feature that Twitter wanted its default URL shortener to have, one can see how a company that didn't have it and wasn't interested in building it would have a hard time getting the plum deal. (And in my opinion, once you use Bit.ly's real-time tracking service, you'll be hooked; Twitter was right about that.)

Currently, according Tweetmeme, Bit.ly has nearly 80 percent of the short URL market. Tr.im's Woodward hopes that a community-owned and -run short URL service based on Tr.im -- which he will fund personally, if needed -- can grow to a 5 percent or 10 percent market share. With that position, he believes the "Bit.ly cartel would be worthless," since the competing Tr.im service would then have enough data to provide the analysis that Bit.ly or Twitter would, presumably, otherwise be able to sell for any price they wished.

"We'll just give it away," Woodward says.

But if Bit.ly remains free to use (even if only to a point) and the product continues to stay ahead of Tr.im in features and reliability, chances are people will continue to use it, even if it's not as open.

Twitter did not return a request for comment on this topic.

The DNS option and other speculations
The real challenge for everyone in the short URL business is that it shouldn't exist to begin with. "The worst is that you put links to your site in the hands of a third party," OpenDNS CEO Dave Ulevitch wrote to me. "This entire problem was created by Twitter and could be solved by them. The analytics that come with Bit.ly are cool, but people can start doing them self-hosted."

Some publishers, like TechCrunch, have taken to contracting with services to begin to wrest some control -- and branding -- from the growth of the short URL sites. TechCrunch uses the Awe.sm service for its tcrn.ch short URLs. Some CBS TV sites (CNET News is published by CBS Interactive, a unit of CBS) also use a third party -- Bit.ly, in fact -- to create co-branded short links. CNET tech sites do not have a partnership contract for short URLs.

It's not very likely that the community-owned link shortener Woodward is trying to build will be taken up by Twitter, Tweetdeck, or other powerful gateways to the Twitter network, and this will limit its growth, to put it mildly. However, a community-driven URL shortening service could make some inroads and certainly get some traction among users who want to buck the trend of feeding data into what they may see as a steel trap owned by a for-profit corporation.

Users who really want to avoid having their links stuck in an URL shortening service can simply create their own short links, as, frankly, we've done at CNET in an experimental project. This is likely the true alternative to the otherwise excellent Bit.ly hosted URL shortening and analytics service. We should expect shorteners to be built into content management and blogging platforms, where they can be integrated into the analytics systems already running on those platforms. Links belong, after all, to the sites that create them. As OpenDNS' Ulevitch says, short URLs, "add an unnecessary layer of cruft to already-brittle links."

 

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