TinyURL Considered Harmful
Back in late 2006 I wrote the following as a letter to the editor of Motorcycle Consumer News. They printed it, and stopped using TinyURLs! One small lurch forward.
I wish you wouldn’t use tinyurl.com in the magazine, for a number of reasons.
First, any error in a tinyurl code makes the link completely useless. This might be a printing error in the magazine, or a typing error on the subscriber’s part. Either way, there’s no way to guess where the link was intended to go.
Second, a careful computer user is very reluctant to visit a web site “blind” without any idea of where he’s going. Tinyurl makes that sort of reckless behavior mandatory. Even if we completely trust the magazine to vet web sites for safety, any typing error and we could end up anywhere on the web.
Third, the reader may not be sitting in front of the computer as he reads the article. If there’s a real URL on the page, he at least has a chance of remembering what web site was mentioned, so he can find it later when he’s at the computer. Likewise, when reading the magazine he may recognize the URL as one he’s already visited, saving a trip to the computer entirely. There’s no chance of remembering or recognizing a tinyurl.
Fourth, occasionally the writer will succumb to the temptation to give a tinyurl without ever even mentioning the actual company or product he’s referring to. This renders the whole reference completely useless unless the reader is at a computer and able to type in the tinyurl correctly.
Fifth, tinyurl.com could disappear without notice, or turn evil somehow, and where would that leave you? All the tinyurl links in a subscriber’s collection of back issues would be obsolete.
I realize that full URLs are too big to fit nicely in narrow text columns in the magazine. I would suggest that there’s a perfectly good standard solution to problems like this one: footnotes. Instead of a tinyurl, put something like [Link 1] in the text, and put the link at the bottom of the page. You can let it span multiple columns in order to minimize line breaks within the URL. The footnote reference is even more compact than the tinyurl, and the full URL at the bottom of the page avoids all of the disadvantages mentioned above.
Thanks for listening.