As the web has grown older and wider, the many layers of URLs have grown deeper and longer. Our own beloved Infotoday.com NewsBreaks have gone from a discreet few layers ending in a name and a date to foot-long URLs incorporating title information. And since the unforgiving web requires absolute accuracy for every letter and symbol in a URL instruction, this can leave users cussing and kicking when they have to re-enter URLs again and maybe yet again. What's the solution? URL shortening services such as Bit.ly and TinyURL. The use of such services has grown with the advent of mobile computing and social networks, especially Twitter with its 140-character tweet-size limit. But what happens if a URL shortener goes out of business? As all the shortened links go dead, are users left holding empty sacks?
Although most users have seen numerous TinyURL or Bit.ly links, there are dozens and dozens of URL shorteners redirecting abbreviated links to the longer goal URLs. (For a sample list, check out www.dmoz.org/Computers/Internet/Web_Design_and_Development/Hosted_Components_and_Services/Redirects.) Bloggers have long used the shorteners to improve the flow of their remarks.
In these tough economic times, the chances of a URL shortener going under have increased. Two of these sites have recently been pulled back from the brink. Stowe Boyd, a well-known blogger and web commentator, pointed out that shortening URLs is not the only service URL shorteners specialize in. Companies with other products and services may use URL shortening to conduct business with their own products, particularly as they need to send content to mobile phones and emails or social networks. In these cases, if a company decided to cancel the service, e.g., due to abandoning a product line, again, the users might suffer.
To the rescue comes the Internet Archive (www.archive.org) with its backing of a new service called 301Works.org (www.301works.org). Boyd explained the origin of the initiative. "Originally there was a working group of shortening companies. I was involved indirectly. We were discussing how an archive should be configured to help users. In the midst of this, the Internet Archive got involved. They said they would be happy to do the archiving and asked me to be director. It moved from the original group to a set of principles and an agreement version which lets us upload pairings. 301Works.org is an initiative of the Internet Archive, as well as being a working group of the companies participating."
A list of the companies currently involved comprises Abbrr.com, Adjix.com, AppsFire.com, Awe.sm, Bit.ly, Buk.me, Cli.gs, Delivr.com, Ham.org, Idek.net, Jdem.cz, Lin.cr, u.mavrev.com/, Trcb.us, Twurl.nl, Ur1.ca, URLizer.com, URLshort.com, Xrl.us (Metamark), Youific.com, and Zip.li. The largest company on the list is clearly Bit.ly, which is owned by Betaworks Studio, Inc. It reportedly shortens about 40 million web addresses each day. TinyURL reportedly handles a million a day and has some 435 million links in place. Boyd says that since the announcement of 301Works.org, 15-20 organizations have shown interest. TinyURL is still considering whether to join the program. Boyd hopes that they can build "an implicit pressure on organizations to be able to say to users, ‘Don't worry about using our service.' We could become like the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval."
How would it work? Boyd said, "We are working on procedures for consistency. We should have a final version this week." However, generally speaking, participating companies will provide sets of their URL mappings to 301Works.org with regular updates. When, and only when, a shortening service closes down, the technical control of the service's domain would pass to 301Works.org for continuous redirecting of existing short links to users.
Boyd commented, "We're trying to make people less concerned about the use of the shortened links. There's been a lot of concern, so this is an attempt to allay that fear. It will be structured to help the average user. We've been inundated with pragmatic aspects of the project and have been trying to catch up. We're doing an operational test now. A description of the technique should be uploaded to the Internet Archive collection and out in the next couple of weeks. Some potential participants are delaying until the new year. We also recommend that anyone creating a lot of shortened links keep their own table of them just in case."