Custom URL Shortener: Maximize Your Mobile/Social Online Branding

This article was originally published on Geek Estate Blog:

Creating your company’s own customized URL shortener is faster and easier than you might believe.  Why would a company need/want a custom URL shortener?  I’ll get to that, but if the geeks will please excuse me for a second, the basic premise of URL shorteners for those who might not be aware:

URL shorteners are used to shrink a web link to a smaller size.  When users on Twitter, Facebook, and a number of other mobile/social media sites type or paste web links, they need to them to be as short as possible to save room for a title, explanation, comment, etc.  Example:

http://seattlehome.com/waterfront-homes/Bellevue is a nice link, but it’s 48 characters long.  You are only allowed to type 140 characters per tweet on Twitter, so you’ve used up more than one-third of your space if you paste this URL into your tweet.  That same URL can be shortened to http://seaho.me/w and your link points to the exact same web page, but you now have 31 more characters to work with on your tweet.  This is possible by registering a short domain name (seaho.me vs. seattlehome.com) and using a URL shortener.

Why Custom Branded URLs vs. Public URL Shorteners

There are plenty of public URL shorteners available, with the most popular being bit.ly.  These services allow you to shorten a link, but it will be branded under the service-provider’s domain.  This can save you a few characters, and is fine for most individual users.  However, most good marketers are looking to squeeze every last ounce of branding out of a marketing effort, and a shortened, custom URL gives the impression of a polished, tech-savvy, well-organized company.

Think of it this way:  You are a source of valuable information for your followers.    Your social media account could be seen as one large convention hall full of your personal knowledge of a subject matter, and doorways that you provide to information from others that you trust and respect.  Because your followers trust you, they follow the links that you provide to other sources.  If you owned the convention hall, how would you label the doors leading to the knowledge you’re providing–with some other company’s name, or would you put your company’s sponsorship right on top of every label as you direct your customers to the information they’re seeking?

Branding your URLs means owning your knowledge space, and reminding your followers/users/customers/clients about the value that you are providing to them.

Pseudo Custom Branded URL Shorteners

Some companies have adopted a partial solution with hosted custom branding.  Bitly enterprise is an upgraded ”pro service” that allows companies, like the Seattle Times, to register a shortened domain and use it as their URL shortener, while bitly hosts the software and the links database.  http://seattletimes.com becomes http://seati.ms and the repetition of the Seattle Times name throughout the company’s posts does deliver some of the impact of a custom URL shortener:

@seattletimes (Seattle Times) Local home sales on an upswing: http://seati.ms/o8JD2H

There are just two downfalls to this service.  First, it’s $995/mo.  No, I didn’t miss a decimal in that price.  Second, for those willing to cough up that nearly-thousand dollars per month, it gets worse.  The “home page” of your shortened domain will redirect back to bitly’s home page.  How much time and money would you spend branding a domain which has a base page sending traffic elsewhere?

Fully-customized URL shorteners

I’ve researched a number of do-it-yourself URL shorteners, and all signs point to YOURLS as the best and easiest product available (being free is a nice bonus).  YOURLS allows you to install a set of files on your company’s server/host, create a simple database, edit one text file, and start linking.  Anyone who has installed a custom wordpress site can do this in a blink.  If you haven’t, it wouldn’t take long for your IT guru to get it done for you.  I won’t get into the technical details of the install since every provider is different, but there are ample instructions on YOURLS’s site.

Once installed, log into the admin page, paste your link, and shorten.  You can even post directly to Facebook and Twitter through the YOURLS interface.  Links are saved in the database for as long as you keep the web hosting in place.  Is shortening your links in an external application a bit more work?  Every new marketing venture is more work, or more money.  In the end, the minimal extra effort spent to brand URLs is, in my opinion, worth the boost to the brand’s image.

TIPS:

First things first:  find yourself a great shortened domain name.  International domains come in particularly handy for creating shortened words ending in .me, .ms, .ly, etc.  Here are sometips.  Take the time to get a good one, because once you start linking, you’re stuck with it.

Now, for the important part.  You’re not finished until you’ve created a mobile-friendly landing page for your new shortened domain.  A high percentage of users viewing your social media feed are going to be on mobile devices.  When they decide that they want to see what this http://seaho.me site is that keeps delivering relevant real estate news to them, they need to find a web site that is designed to be viewed on whatever device they might be using.  It doesn’t matter how much time you spend on branding, if a user visits your site on a mobile device and it’s not optimized for mobile, they’ll be off to another company’s site in a minute.

Register a short domain, install YOURLS, create a mobile-friendly landing page, and link like the big boys without spending the big bucks.