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4/10/2009
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Shorter URL Links Magnify Content Abuse Problems

A huge proportion of shortened links are just a disguise for spam, and the practice deprives publishers of analytics information about their visitors, experts suggest.

The user sees the linked site beneath the URL that begins with digg.com and a Digg-branded toolbar. In terms of Web site branding, it's as if McDonald's built its golden arches over an Arby's restaurant and started decorating the Arby's with Big Mac ads.

"All sorts of sites tried this sort of trickery back in the mid-'90s when Netscape Navigator 2.0 added support for the <frameset> tag," Gruber writes on his blog. "It did not take long for a broad consensus to develop that framing someone else's site was wrong. URLs are the building block of the Web. They tell the user where they are. They give you something to bookmark to go back or to share with others."

Digg is not alone in this practice. Facebook frames links that users post on their profiles with a similar bar in an effort to keep users who click on friends' links tied to its site.

Digg defends the DiggBar, noting that it saw a 20% lift in unique visits following the release of the tool and that an unspecified number of content providers experienced similar increases in visitor traffic.

In a blog post on Thursday, Digg's VP of engineering, John Quinn, said that his company had taken steps to make sure that Digg's framing doesn't hurt the search engine ranking of the Web pages getting framed by the DiggBar.

Boser responds on his blog that "the claims in Digg's post are a flat out lie," adding that he will be advising clients to add frame-busting code to their sites so the DiggBar won't work.

Del.icio.us founder Joshua Schachter, who now works for Google, published a blog post a week ago that summarized the larger problems presented by URL-shortening services. While acknowledging their appeal as easy and potentially profitable businesses from a startup standpoint, he observes that URL shortening presents potential harm to the site employing the service, the publisher of the content referenced in the shortened URL, and the user clicking on the shortened link.

Citing his past experience with Del.icio.us, Schachter said that "a huge proportion of shortened links are just a disguise for spam" and that URL shortening deprives publishers of analytics information about their visitors, makes links harder to archive, and prevents those clicking on links from knowing where they're going.

Though some of these issues can be addressed -- bit.ly for example says that it runs submitted links through spam filters and that only "a very small percentage" of its links are spam links -- the need for short URLs isn't likely to disappear.

As a consequence, Schachter suggests that sites find way to keep their URL structure short or implement a URL-shortening service of their own, so a third-party service isn't necessary.


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