The Dangers of URL Shorteners

In preparation for the next release, I just did an audit of all the errors that Aptise/Cliquedin encountered while indexing content.

Out of a few million URLs, there were 35k “well formed” urls that couldn’t be parsed due to “critical errors”.

Most of these 35k errors are due to URL shorteners. A small percentage of them are from shorteners that have dead/broken links. A much larger percentage of them are from shorteners that just do not seem to perform well at all.

I hate saying bad things about any company, but speaking as a former publisher — I feel the need to talk bluntly about this type of stuff. After pulling out some initial findings, I ran more tests on the bad urls from multiple unrelated IP addresses to make sure I wasn’t being singled out for “suspicious” activity. Unfortunately, the behavior was consistent.

The worst offenders are:

* from WordPress
* from Adobe Social Marketing
* from SocialFlow when used with custom domains fom Bitly

The SocialFlow+Bitly system was overrepresented because of the sheer number of their clients and urls they handle — and I understand that may skews things — but they have some interesting architecture decisions that seem to be reliably bad for older content. While I would strongly recommend that people NOT use any of these url shortening services, I more strongly recommend that people do not use SocialFlow’s system with a Custom Domain through bitly. I really hate saying this, but the performance is beyond terrible — it’s totally unacceptable.

The basic issue across the board is this: these systems perform very well in redirecting people to newer content (they most likely have the mapping of newer unmaksed urls in a cache), but they all start to stall when dealing with older content that probably needs a database query. I’m not talking about waiting a second or two for a redirect to happen — I’m consistently experiencing wait times from these systems that are reliably over 20 seconds long — and often longer. When using a desktop/mobile web browser, the requests reliably timeout and the browser just gives up.

While and have a lag as they lookup a url to redirect users to a masked url, the SocialFlow + Bitly combo has a design element that works differently:

1. Request a custom shortened url ``
2. The shortened url is actually served by Bitly, and you will wait x seconds for lookup + redirect
3. Redirected to a different short url on (SocialFlow)
4. Wait x seconds for second lookup + redirect
5. Redirected to end url `”

All the shorteners could do a better job with speeding up access to older and “less popular” content. But if I were SocialFlow, I would remove Bitly from the equation and just offer custom domains myself. Their service isn’t cheap, and from the viewpoint of a publisher — wait times like this are totally unacceptable.

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