Last Sunday URL shortener tr.im, a product of developer Nambu, announced it would be ceasing operation at the end of 2009. Several bloggers and pundits who have loudly decried the use of URL shorteners immediately seized upon this as proof that they were right all along and that the scourge of short URLs they have warned us about is finally coming to an end. This is a bit like claiming that people will soon stop driving cars because General Motors filed for bankruptcy.
As it turns out, the naysayers’ pronouncement was a little premature, as three days later tr.im announced it was resuming operations - at least for the time being - after a massive response from its users begging the developer to keep the service running. The developer is reportedly looking for a new owner to take over.
While I use and like tr.im and I certainly would be sad to see it go, this outcome would hardly qualify as a disaster. In reality, the salient facts are thus: 1) the shut down of tr.im would be a minor inconvenience at worst and 2) there continues to be considerable demand (even need) for URL shorteners.
Opponents of shorteners have always warned that shortened URLs put you at the mercy of the survivability of the service. But tr.im’s worst-case scenario is to go out rather gracefully, with a promise to continue redirecting their URLs until Dec. 31. Additionally, the vast majority of shortened URLs are used in Twitter posts, which have a shelf life anyway. Twitter searches only go back about 30 days, so by the time tr.im fully ceases operation most of the posts that use the service will be fading into obscurity on their own.
As always, the biggest danger in using a web service lies in not using it properly. URL shorteners have always had a disposable aspect to them – if you need a short, easy to remember URL, you use a shortener. If you're formally citing a web site or archiving it for posterity, you should always use the original URL.
The arguments against the need for URL shorteners tend to fall into the same category as people who argue against the usefulness of Twitter; they don't like it because they don't get it. The only way you are going to understand it is to use it until something finally clicks that makes you think “wow, that’s actually useful.”
How many times have you heard people criticize Twitter by saying “Why would I want to read about the minutiae of someone's boring life?” Well, obviously you wouldn't –no one does. People who tweet about going to the grocery store and looking forward to the weekend don't have tens of thousands of followers. Likewise, spammers and marketers clumsily trying to drive people to their web sites may make up a sizeable percentage of people using URL shorteners, but they are not the innovators driving its popularity, they are simply the parasites trying to take advantage of a powerful idea.
By far the most popular use for shortened URLs is Twitter, but there are hundred of other legitimate uses, and probably thousands more waiting for clever users to invent them. When I was on my brewery tour I used tr.im to keep a Google map of our route handy, because I got sick of typing a long URL into smart phones and other peoples' computers. When my company ran a newspaper ad recently we used tr.im to create a short and sweet link to a brochure rather than expecting readers to type in the cumbersome, 100-character file path our web server creates.
The people who scream that there is no use for URL shorteners are like really bad salesmen, who confront a customer looking for a specific feature by saying “We don't have anything like that because nobody would ever use it.” Obviously there are people out there who would use it, because you are talking to one of them. If you personally believe that something is useless but it stubbornly continues to be wildly popular, it's your opinion that is going to have to change, not reality.
So where do we go from here? I would love to see another player like bit.ly, tinyurl or StumbleUpon swoop in and acquire tr.im's domain and database, merely for the sake of maintaining legacy links created under the old service and redirecting the creation of new URLs to the savior's own site. The need for preserving these old links isn't critical, but the move would create so much goodwill from tr.im's old users that they would flock to the new owner.
Also, I'm not a fan of the cumbersome phrase “URL shortener.” In fact, in the course of writing this post I've grown positively sick of it. So in honor of our struggling friend, let's rephrase “URL shorteners” and “URL shortening” as “trimmers” and “trimming” from here on out.
Tr.im may be dying, but trimming will live on.
P.S. - No URLs were trimmed in the writing of this post.