The Perils of Link Shortening for Paid Advertising: What is your link shortener saying about you?
There are a range of link shortening services out there from the popular Bit.ly and Goo.gl to the classic TinyURL.com and the up and coming Is.gd. Chances are you picked one, it worked, and you stuck with it, without giving it a second thought. In this article we look at why you need to be careful of the link shortening service you use, particularly for use in paid ads, as some services make it suprisingly easy for others to access your data.
If you’re like me you probably have a staple link shortening service bookmarked in your browser. Chances are you can’t remember when you first needed it or how you came to choose this particular service, but you’ve since come to rely on it, and to trust it unconditionally. You’re probably vaguely aware that there other services out there, but your current shortener has never let you down, so you’ve never given it second thought, never seen a reason to stray. In my naivety I assumed that all link shorteners were created equal and that there was probably very little practical difference between them. In reality there’s actually a significant difference between them in terms of the data they store about your links, and who they make this data available to.
Why use a link shortener in paid advertising?
There are a couple of reasons to use link shortening services in your ads, the most obvious being that on platforms where the link is part of your word count (e.g. Twitter) shortening your links gives you more room for creative. However there’s also a more technical reason specific to YouTube advertising. At the moment AdWords for Video does not play well with Google Analytics naturally. This is because auto-tagging does not work with AdWords for Video, so you have to use the URL builder to create your links. If you then use these links as landing pages in an AdWords account with auto-tagging turned on Google will strip your manually created strings away again, so you have to ‘hide’ them in a shortened URL and then use this as your landing page for your ads (or you could set up a YouTube only adwords account with auto-tagging switched off).
What's the issue?
Several of the mainstream link shortening services provide their own analytics dashboards that contain data about the links you’ve created with them. Typically these include the number of times a link has been clicked and when, where these clicks came from in the world, and even which services have referred these users. This can be really useful if you don’t have access to Google Analytics or another tracking package, or if you want some quick stats on the fly, but the danger is that some of these services make these stats so openly available that your data could be accessed by people who you’d rather didn’t see it. This might not be the end of the world for most links, but for paid advertising it means that a competitor could work out where you’re targeting, which services you’re using, and even the kind of traffic volumes you’re getting. As an example, here’s a Tweet from The Guardian about the recent Royal Mail IPO:
Here’s the Bit.ly link in the Tweet:
And here’s what happens if we append a ‘+’ to the link:
As you will see, we can quickly find out that this link has predominantly been used on Twitter, has been most popular in the UK, but also seen a fair amount of action in Australia (which I would not have assumed beforehand), and saw most activity around the 24th and 25th of October.
Bit.ly aren’t the only service that do this either; here’s a recent Tweet from Jamie Oliver featuring a link from Goo.gl, Google’s own link shortening service:
Here’s the link in the Tweet:
And here’s what happens when we append a ‘+’ to the link:
Perhaps unsurprisingly a significant proportion of people are looking at this recipe on their mobile phones; what might be more surprising is that Jamie Oliver (or Vegetable Jalfrezi) is pretty popular in Romania.
Although this data isn’t that detailed, it’s still information you’re giving to your competitors for free. When it comes to paid links you’re essentially letting the competition know where you’re targeting, with what platforms, and exactly how expansive your reach is. This is all very sporting of you, but by simply changing your link shortener service you can stop sharing this information.
What to do
Here’s a rundown of the current most popular services and the data they currently offer. Not only will this help you pick the right service for you, it will also enable you to look up the data of other links you see around the internet to give you more insight into what the competition are doing.
Therefore, when it comes to links in paid ads, my recommendation would be using Is.gd as it gives you much more control over who has access to the data from your links. TinyURL.com is also a possibility as it does not provide any kind of statistics for its links, which should be fine provided you have some other way to track your traffic.