Link shorteners: the long and short of why you shouldn’t use them

If you’ve ever published social media content it’s likely you’ve come across link-shortening tools. Certainly, in the days of 140 character tweets and social platforms counting website addresses towards your character count, they were something of a lifeline. 

But things have moved on. And, as professional communicators, so must we. 

Why you should avoid link shorteners

In this post, I’m going to address a handful of common misconceptions about link-shortening tools, and talk to you about some of the potential risks associated with using them.

Myth: I should shorten links before I publish them on social media to save on character count

This is one of the biggest – and fairly old school – misconceptions. If you’re using a link-shortening tool to save characters, you’re adding a totally unnecessary step to your work. That includes free link shorteners you can find online, or the functionality offered by your social media publishing tool.

Platforms now automatically compress links so there is no character limit advantage to using another tool to shorten your links before you publish them on social media.

Here’s Twitter addressing some frequently asked questions about its on-platform link shortening service, and an explainer from LinkedIn in case you need further convincing.

Myth: My link shortening tool provides me with analytics

Some link shorteners claim to provide you with analytics. And perhaps they do, but no more than you get natively, for free, on social media platforms and via tools like Google Analytics. 

Social media platforms tell you how many clicks you received and provide a click-through rate (CTR) – you don’t need a third party tool like a link shortener to find that out. 

Combining the information you get safely and securely from things like Twitter Analytics or Instagram Insights with your Google Analytics helps tell you even more about how your content is performing.

The Google Analytics dashboard breaks down traffic according to what channel it came from – whether organic (via a search engine), through paid channels (like a Facebook ad) or from organic social media posts. You can dig deeper by clicking through to see which specific social domains or posts drove visits to your content.

If you’re running paid activity on social media and really want to supercharge your analytics, create UTMs (that’s Urchin Tracking Modules), not shortened links. UTM builders let you add parameters to your campaign URLs that will give you a detailed breakdown in your Google Analytics of which specific links drove visits to your landing pages. Here’s a helpful guide that explains how to create them.

Risk: You have no control over the link-shortening tools’ privacy policies

As government communicators we have a responsibility to the people who follow our channels and engage with our digital content. Did you know that some link shorteners add tracking cookies to users’ devices, which then trace their activities around the web? And if you didn’t know, do you think the people who are following your channels, and clicking your shortened links, do?

You have no control over the privacy policies of link-shortening tools so when users click on shortened links you post, it could threaten user privacy. Stop using the tools, and you remove that risk for you professionally, while protecting your users’ privacy.

Risk: Creating inaccessible social media content

Using link shorteners also creates accessibility issues. Most link-shortening tools produce links which are a random mix of letters and numbers that tell users absolutely nothing about the content of the link, or where it is hosted. 

That’s another user trust issue: people like to know where they’re going. But it’s also an accessibility issue, and creates a particularly poor experience for people who use assistive technologies like screen readers.

This guide to planning, creating and publishing accessible social media campaigns has more advice on making link text accessible (plus a host of other good practice).

Risk: Generic links don’t capitalise on brand trust 

Let me say up front that I know not every link we share will be to content hosted on the GOV.UK domain – but I’m using it to illustrate a point. 

We have all worked hard to build up trust in GOV.UK. When users see links that start with they can feel confident that they are being taken to an authoritative source. If you bury that credibility behind a generic, shortened link you lose out on that hard-won recognition and trust. It’s one of the other reasons we advise against using link shorteners in GDS’s Social Media Playbook.

Risk: Undermining confidence in government sources

The other side of that same coin is the risk of undermining confidence in government sources. If there’s widespread use of gobbledygook shortened links (you know the ones, a jumble of upper and lower case letters and numbers) we could be inadvertently contributing to users being socialised to click any type of link. 

And that’s bad. Because you know who uses gobbledygook links a lot? Phishing scams

We should be using our digital channels to reinforce the message that users should only trust (and expect) GOV.UK and NHS.UK-style links from official channels.

Text saying 'best practice' in a white frame and a light bulb above, all in red background.

What could you do instead 

The good news is if you’re only publishing links on social media platforms, you don’t have to actually start doing anything – you just need to stop shortening your links on other tools. Happy days. Use that time to pop the kettle on instead.

If you’re adding campaign URLs to offline materials – like posters or leaflets – and don’t want to feature a long web link, I’ve got good news for you too. GDS provides the option to you to request a shortened version of a full GOV.UK URL

If your campaign microsite is not on the GOV.UK domain, your digital team or agency supplier should be able to easily create a shortened version for you that doesn’t compromise on the integrity of the domain name, or link content. A heads up that sometimes people call these “alias” or “vanity” URLs outside of government.

So that’s the long and short of it. Third party link-shortening tools can add unnecessary steps to your processes, create accessibility issues, threaten user privacy and undermine user trust – with no benefit to you as communicators. 

How about we nip using them in the bud?