An Affiliate Wake-Up Call: The Case Against URL Shortening Services

In Affiliate Marketing by Daniel M. Clark7 Comments

Earlier this week, URL shortener tr.im shut down. Then they reopened after what they’re calling an outpouring of support from users. Sort of. Is this the service you should trust your redirection to?

Using a URL shortening service is a popular way to hide a destination, save space in a Twitter or Identi.ca message, and cloak affiliate links. It’s that last point that I want to touch on here. Affiliates should take notice of what happened with tr.im earlier this week and learn a valuable lesson.

Don’t ever trust a URL shortening service to cloak your affiliate links.

On Monday, tr.im shut down with the following announcement:

Regretfully, we here at Nambu have decided to shutdown tr.im, the first step in shutting down all of our products and services within that brand.

The owners made the announcement that tr.im would redirect links until the end of the year and that the Twitter client Nambu, one of their “products and services” referenced above, would cease development. I was a Nambu user, and by extension, a tr.im user (as tr.im is the default shortener in Nambu, a point that will demonstrate a double-standard in just a moment).

Eric Woodward replied to comments on the few blog entries made at tr.im and repeated the same lines that were used on the blog. Twitter favors bit.ly. Twitter is making it impossible for other URL shorteners to survive. The people behind bit.ly have a relationship with the folks at Twitter and it’s that insider, buddy-buddy relationship (not, as he implies, the quality of bit.ly) that makes tr.im unable to compete.

Woodward went on to say that nobody was interested in buying tr.im, even for “a token amount of money”. This will be seen as ironic shortly.

Do you see where I’m going with this?

Here is a service that has been around for about 12 months, that has shortened thousands of links, that decided to close up shop because Twitter didn’t make them the default URL shortener for users of the Twitter web interface. Now, I won’t go into the comments that I made in the various blog posts here and here, but suffice to say, I think this is flawed thinking. They based their business model on a company that itself has no business model. They complained that bit.ly was crowned the default URL shortener on the Twitter website, yet they made tr.im the default URL shortener in the Nambu Twitter client. They don’t see the double-standard. More importantly, they refuse to acknowledge that the only way to make a mark with a shortener now is to look beyond Twitter.

Woodward has gone on to say that tr.im has no interest in frames, advertising or, it seems, any other kind of monetization. It was stated that nobody was interested in buying tr.im. Well, of course not! It’s not a large service, it’s not making any money, and the owners can’t seem to understand why nobody wants it! That might be a little disingenuous. There were some offers made, and they were all turned down, ostensibly because the owners don’t want anyone to use the service to spam people with frames and advertisements.

Parse that again. The owners aren’t making any money, and they refuse to sell the service to anyone else if the intention is to make money with the service. They were, it seems, simply waiting for something to come along and buy them out. That was never going to happen, but after reading the whiny blog posts (Twitter isn’t playing fair! Whaaa!) it’s no surprise that they never understood that.

Am I being harsh? Probably, yes. The way that users of tr.im and Nambu were treated this week was pathetic. I was one of those users. I’m insulted!

Affiliates, this is a wake-up call. If you’re cloaking links on your sites, find another way to do it. Any of these URL shortening services could go away tomorrow – and what will you do? Spend a week or two rewriting thousands of links? If your affiliate efforts are blog-based, as mine are on this site, consider .htaccess redirects. They’re simple to use and make swapping out merchants a snap. PHP redirects are useful, too. Either way, you have control over your traffic and you’re not at the mercy of a third party URL shortener.

Ow.ly, bit.ly, TinyURL, su.pr, twitpwr.com… do you really want to be handing over your traffic to sites that may or may not be around next year?

Whatever you do, stop using tr.im. It probably won’t last much longer with the owners running the service like this.

Comments

  1. That's a good question, Gabe, and one that I've considered from many different angles. I've read arguments for and against it, and the arguments against are almost always given from a moral perspective – that it's dishonest to cloak. Done a certain way, I'm inclined to agree.

    When it comes to cloaking, the central issues seem to be: 1.) that visitors can't see their “true” destination and 2.) that it's not obvious that cloaked links are affiliate links, and there's a disclosure issue.

    At the top of the site, in the main navigation, I've got a page called Linking Practices that basically says that I'm an affiliate and some links on the site may be affiliate links. I also periodically mention that some links may be affiliate links in an individual post or section, as in the Thesis promo box above. So, to me, that covers disclosure – well enough for my definition of fair disclosure, anyway. Others may say I haven't gone far enough, or that I don't need to disclose as much as I do. Opinions abound 🙂

    That leaves the issue of the “true” destination. But what is the real, true destination? If I have a visible link to http://www.dpbolvw.net/4o101qgpmgo3799B7BA35498… – does that tell my visitor anything? It's a standard CJ link, but it doesn't tell the visitor that their final, true destination is a page at Better World Books. The very nature of affiliate linking is “cloaked”, in a way. Whether I do it myself or I show the visitor the CJ link, they're not going to know the ultimate destination.

    So, I think the inherent nature of affiliate links coupled with my disclosure makes my .htaccess redirects fair. Not everyone will agree with me, but I hope that I've expressed myself well enough that folks understand I'm not being underhanded about my linking practices. I cloak because it's far easier to manage links that way, not because I want to be dishonest with my visitors 🙂

  2. I think the biggest issue here is that blind linking is a bad user experience, regardless of intent. Why not use a title attribute in your anchor tags to inform your visitors where they're going when they click on a link?

  3. I think that's a fantastic idea. The only problem, and one that is probably easily overcome once I actually hammer it out, is that the title/alt attributes would have to be assigned dynamically, depending on what merchant I'm going to at any given time. Like I said, I cloak because it's easier to manage links – if a merchant goes offline or discontinues an item, I can just update the .htaccess file with a new destination, and I'm good to go. If I can come up with a way to update the title or alt attributes whenever I update that file… that would solve the problem very neatly. Maybe I can write a WordPress plugin to handle it…

    That said – and I'll definitely work on that this week because it's a great idea – would that solve the blind linking/UE aspect of cloaking in your mind? With that in place, would cloaking – in general, as it would then be implemented – be acceptable?

  4. A WP plugin could do the rewrites for title attributes pretty easily. I think it would be acceptable so long as you can manage linkrot and your .htaccess solution seems to do that pretty well.

Leave a Comment