Why Twitter is turning increasingly towards t.co link shortening

August 24, 2011

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Google's cryptic first tweet reads "I'm feeling lucky", I think

Google's cryptic first tweet reads "I'm feeling lucky", I think

Yesterday we reported how one could avoid Twitter’s somewhat annoying t.co URL shortener by using lesser known URL services like j.mp, or by keeping the URL length to 20 characters or less. Unfortunately, this hack will not last forever as Twitter does plan to wrap all links, regardless of length, with its own t.co link service. Why? It’s all to do with analytics.

Although some users, including myself, find it annoying that Twitter in fact “re-shortens” already shortened links to its own t.co service, there are a few benefits to be had. Security is the first major benefit as Twitter vets links against its own database of known malicious sites before shortening to t.co. Earlier this month, Twitter already promised to get tough and “predictive” on spam.

The second major benefit is similar to the first as t.co links do not appear obscured like other link services. With t.co, links appear as a shortened version of the original URL, even though the user’s eventual journey to the original URL is always routed through the t.co link. In this regard, users can see what site lies behind the link before visiting. This brings us the the third and most important reason for automatic t.co links; analytics.

Analytics across the Twitter ecosystem

Prior to the introduction of t.co in June of this year, referral traffic from Twitter only really accounted for users coming from twitter.com. But what about all the traffic from Twitter users using third-party apps or clients? Third-party apps constitute a huge part of the Twitter ecosystem so this data should not be ignored. When Twitter eventually parses all links to t.co, the service can effectively record traffic referrals from all tweets, regardless of whether the user is using twitter.com or not. Within analytics services like Google Analytics, eventually all Twitter referrals will appear to derive from t.co.

At The Sociable we’ve already begun to see the benefits of this. In general, referral traffic to our site arrives majorly from Stumble Upon, Facebook and Twitter, in that order. In the past 30 days however, combined twitter.com and t.co referral traffic has eclipsed Facebook traffic, something we’d consider a rare occurrence. Specifically, 46.7% of referral traffic came from Stumble Upon, 8.6% from Twitter, 8.2% from Facebook and 2.2% from Google+. Recording Twitter’s true traffic referral power with t.co may show its increasing importance as a source of website traffic.

It’s hard then to see how other link shortening services can compete if Twitter completely replaces them with t.co. And if Twitter does eventually release its own analytics feature, possibly geared at enterprise users, then services like bit.ly with built-in analytics would serve no purpose at all.

What to you think of Twitter’s automatic shortlinks? Let us know in the comments.

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Darren McCarra

Darren McCarra is co-editor of The Sociable. He has a keen interest in photography, all things mobile, and writing about technology and social media. You can follow him on Twitter, Facebook and Google+.

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