# Do users trust shortened URLs?

I've got some problems with shortened URLs personally; they're really easy to create and not descriptive, so it's fairly easy to make them link to malware. I'm talking about links like http://bit.ly/I1lnqi used to replace a real, descriptive URL, not domain names that happen to be short. While they're almost necessary on Twitter I'm seeing them all over.

The descriptive part of the URL is gone. Twitter has a nice solution in that they give <title> text showing the real URL, but this doesn't work if you can't hover and requires extra effort to be found.

However I'm also an advanced user so I'm sure I pay a lot more attention to URLs than most people.

Do users care about shortned URLs? Are there actual trust issues or are they almost entirely overlooked? I'm hoping there are some stats out there or at least some A/B test results.

• Obligatory Jakob Nielsen link "URLs that visualize the site structure", "URLs that are "hackable" to allow users to move to higher levels of the information architecture by hacking off the end of the URL"... – JonW Apr 25 '12 at 15:14
• Also, another interesting post: Shortener Cli.gs got hacked where all the shortened URLs pointed to the same dodgy URL. However this is more of an answer to the question should users trust shorteners, rather than do they already. – JonW Apr 25 '12 at 15:29
• I remember seeing at least one shortener that included the domain name in the shortened URL for trust reasons. Problem is, this made it a less effective shortener. The fact that I can't remember what its name was probably gives you an indication of how important people thought the compromise was. – Aesin Apr 25 '12 at 16:28
• Personally I do not click on any link for which I cannot determine where I will be taken. I do get stumped now and again by new shortening services, but avoid the known ones like bit.ly etc. There is simply too much sh... that can hide behind a shortened URL for me to trust them. I have actually asked posters here to provide a full url instead of a shortened one exactly for that reason. – Marjan Venema Apr 25 '12 at 19:48
• I think the real question is: why would you use a URL shortener? It only makes sense in Twitter (because of the severely limited space) or in printed media (because it will need to be typed). Using a URL shortener to create a link in a site is pointless: suffers from link-rot and slows down page loading (because of the extra round-trip from the redirect). – Daniel Serodio Apr 25 '12 at 20:25

I don't have much in the way of hard data to back this up, but a number of sites which host user-generated links (eg. news aggregators, Wikipedia) specifically ban shortened URLs for trust reasons. Joshua Schachter (creator of Delicious) wrote a blog post explaining some of the issues with them.

Firstly this is really just an extension of an inherent problem with links in the first place, which is that the target doesn't need to have anything to do with the link text - even if the link text looks perfectly adequate. In fact I would suggest that a well written text link is even more likely to engage and fool the user than a shortened link which might actually make you stop and think 'what is this' before clicking it.

Some users care about shortened URLS - and some don't. I don't have numbers to hand, but the important thing is that more and more users are either becoming aware or being made aware of the issues.

Take this blog article from MailChimp for example which gives advice to their users and even provides a tool for unfurling links. They even take care to use a font which helps highlight issues.

Advanced users or not, we should care and we should eliminate the issue so that users don't need to care.

Bitly and others provides tools and plugins for being able to hover over a link to find out information, but still this is aimed at advanced users. They do highlight the problems of abuse in their help and FAQ's, and those providers that highlight the issue more, and are proactive about removing problematic urls, are likely to be more trusted.

On mobile, where hover is not possible, it's impossible to see where a link goes and with mobile device usage exploding (and desktop usage slowing) it's only going to become more of an issue. I would maybe like to see an intermediate popup for URLS that do not match target and text, that shows the target URL in full detail and confirming whether you want to go to that page, but with the extent of chaining that spammers can use to abuse the system, I doubt there's much that can be done. You could even auto-detect the relevance of the target to the link, content, and immediately surrounding text in order to determine the risk - that would be cool!

We should all be educating users as much as possible as to the existence of the problem; the tools and plugins available to help them; and advising them to avoid clicking unknown links from untrusted or unknown sources in email, search engines, and social media sites, especially new content.

At the end of the day it's a question of:

• do you trust the publisher
• do you trust the source
• do you trust the content
• do you trust the link
• +1 for chain of trust. Educating users is unfortunately only going to work for those who realize it's a problem (~nobody if my non-geek friends/family are any gauge), but educating publishers might work - Essentially making something look like spam to save a few bytes is just not worth it. – l0b0 Apr 25 '12 at 23:23

Just short URLs that they know.

The Government Computer News (GCN) states in the first paragraph of an article that people are reluctant to trust the shortened, random-coded links leading to federal Web sites. This is also true by inference that the same applies for other situations when a delicate operation has to be done.

The big deal is that people want to know where those short, random-coded links are leading you into. This is when a focused, branded and with a clear rule of what is the content behind it, comes into stage The Self-Operated Short URL Services.

The article mentioned above also states the reason GSA created their own short service (go.usa.gov), where people know that you will always land into .gov pages.

Using this as a reference, it's easy to say that people believe youtu.be URLs are safe because they can only lead you into YouTube healms. The same applies for nyt.ms, es.pn and many other.

Addicionally, my personal opinion about Self-Operated short URLs is that they should not allow public input. Even knowing that wp.me or even goo.gl are built to be safe, everyone can short links, everyone can hack you at some point if they want.

• Good post, the trustworthy ones are an interesting exception. Don't suppose you know of any data-backed studies though do you? The GCN doesn't site their sources – Ben Brocka May 2 '12 at 21:55
• Thanks! And I don't exactly remember if I have seen any solid data about that, I will stay alert if I see something, then I edit this answer. Though, in cases like that, I rely on "trustworthy sources" who adopted this path, assuming their teams had concluded to buy a domain just for that based on studies/tests until I find some raw data on the wild. – Dorival May 3 '12 at 4:38

They used to. There are still some email filters or security systems which flag/ban public shorturl systems (like bit.ly or tinyurl.com); so if you are creating a newsletter or in advertising, you should prefer your own private shorturl system (company.com/url/a4c) not a public one.

But they are so ubiquitous now that very few people avoid shortened URLs. Specifically, the demographic which is most likely to pay attention to the URL is also the same demographic that has gotten desensitized to them by their prevalence.

• "very few people avoid shortened URLs" This is an assumption, and we need to be wary of just assuming things like this without any research to support it. – JonW Apr 25 '12 at 15:07
• It is an assumption, but I am looking at the vast array of services, including large ones like Google, which use shortened URLs ubiquitously. Do you think that these very large and often well run companies would still use these if a significant number of users avoided them? – Myrddin Emrys Apr 25 '12 at 15:17
• Well it could be argued that these companies provide the service as an extra way of harvesting browsing habits and forcing web users to go via their own service where they can track users easier, which they can't do if the user has a different 3rd party solution... (but maybe I'm just paranoid) – JonW Apr 25 '12 at 15:23

I think it depends on the user's tech knowledge and the context of the link.

For instance, a "poweruser" might act differently between seeing a link on techcrunch and seeing a link on a blogspot blog which has a black background and few posts. (reputation of the poster).

However, people who only know how to login to email, facebook, and use Word might be more susceptible.