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Summary:

Twitter is rolling out its own link-shortening service for the social network, partly for security reasons and partly so it can offer analytical services based on the data. But the new feature is coming under fire from developers, including a member of the Google Buzz team.

Twitter said recently it plans to roll out its own link-shortening service, known as t.co, and “wrap” any links that are posted by users in a t.co link, even those that have already been shortened with other services such as Bit.ly. The company said it needs to do this in part for security reasons, so that phishing attacks and malware links don’t get through, but that it also plans a number of analytical services based on the link-sharing data of users. In the meantime, however, Twitter is coming under fire from developers — including a prominent member of the Google Buzz team — for the way it’s planning to implement the new link-shortening feature.

In a post on his Buzz account today, DeWitt Clinton took issue with a number of the elements of the new Twitter service. Although the engineer made a point of saying that his criticisms applied to other link-shortening services as well (and he stressed in a footnote that his post represented his own views and not those of his employer), it was obvious that most of his concerns are aimed at Twitter. Among other things, the Google engineer said link shorteners are bad for the web because they deliberately obscure the ultimate destination of a link from both the user and from search engines such as Google (he didn’t discuss Google’s own link shortener).

Clinton said that by convention, link shortening should only be used “at the boundaries of the web,” and that services that want to be open to users and the web in general should use shortened links as little as possible, and “unroll” them whenever possible to show the actual link being posted. He added that:

Twitter’s recent decision to make every link a short URL positions Twitter outside the web, rather than a part of it, which likely does a disservice to the long-term health of the young platform.

The Google engineer also said that because of the way the company had configured its new link-shortening service, it was no longer going to be a neutral content-delivery service, but was now going to be modifying user’s messages in ways that they might not understand or appreciate, since their links would be checked and effectively redirected.

This is a subtle but profound shift in the Twitter platform dynamics, and one that I feel undermines Twitter’s considerable current strengths as a neutral content distribution network.

And Clinton criticized Twitter’s attempt to get developers to display a different URL or link instead of the t.co one when using the feature. The Google engineer said that it was an example of “link masking” or “link cloaking,” and that it was the kind of behavior that was discouraged by search engines as a hallmark of “affiliate link spam.” Clinton recommended that Twitter not require the link masking, that it make the use of its shortener opt-in instead of the default, and that it “consider relaxing the 140-character limit altogether” since that is the main reason that users need a link shortener in the first place.

The Google engineer’s post was echoed by developer Kevin Burton of Spinn3r, and a number of others wrote posts in support and gave his Buzz post the virtual thumbs up, including Google open standards advocate Chris Messina. But are his criticisms fair? More than anything else, Clinton and some of the company’s other critics seem to be complaining that Twitter is wrapping links so that it can track what’s being shared and clicked on — but of course it wants to do that. Why wouldn’t it? And just because that behavior irritates Google doesn’t mean it isn’t appropriate.

Whether the engineer’s criticisms get any support or not from the broader web community, it seems obvious that Twitter’s move into link shortening has stirred up some strong feelings about its behavior, and some concerns about how it might behave in the future, as it tries to become more than just a neutral content-forwarding service. I’ve asked Twitter for comment on Clinton’s post, and will update if and when I get a response.

Related content from GigaOM Pro (sub req’d): Lessons From Twitter: How to Play Nice With Ecosystem Partners

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user Mykl Roventine

  1. Great analysis. This highlights why having “Twitter” as a centralized system owned by one vendor is a very bad idea in the long run. As a user you are constrained between a) letting twitter alter your message for their own tracking purposes or b) not be allows to use that communication tool. A tough place to be!

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    1. Agreed, Edwin — thanks for the comment.

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  2. “…Clinton and some of the company’s other critics seem to be complaining that Twitter is wrapping links so that it can track what’s being shared and clicked on…”

    Talk about pot-kettle. Google doesn’t want anyone trampling their analytics monopoly, and/or doing anything that is disruptive to its own search business. Tough luck there.

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  3. Zac Bowling Monday, June 14, 2010

    obviously, this guy doesn’t get it. i would of brushed him off if I was there and not wrote an article about it. his mind sets are what creates okrut and the youtube redesign.

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  4. Google search also cloaks links. Try to get the direct URL to a page and you’ll find it nearly impossible because it’s going through Google’s own redirect service.

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    1. Yes, that’s a good point — whenever I try to copy a link from the search results page, I just get a long Google link filled with gobbledygook.

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      1. Mathew – while it’s true that Google routes that link to the site through their tracker, they aren’t rewriting the content itself, which is what Twitter is basically going to be doing.

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        1. Yes, that’s a good point, Steve.

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  5. Will the following solution work?

    A link is/should be a part of the meta data about a tweet. This is the same as the location of a tweet, which is not textually exposed in the 140 characters. A tweet without a link would have a null URL and a linking URL would be hyperlinked from the entire tweet. This eliminates URL shorteners completely and frees up more space for the core message.

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    1. That’s a good point, Amit — I know that others have also suggested that Twitter simply remove the link from the character count, and thus obviate the need for shortening at all.

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  6. I feel, this is a forced step taken by Twitter to make it neutral service. There was no necessity for Facebook to launch fb.me, same for Google to launch goo.gl.

    The aim of Facebook and Google to launch their own shorteners is to take control of the twitter traffic generated using their service. There can be no other reason.

    Twitter should not have any issue with neutral shorteners like Bit.ly, Tinyurl.com, nxy.in etc, but any big internet company would not want to lose its control to its major competitors. Now Twitter is no longer a small start-up but a giant in itself; it will take every possible step to fend itself from its competitors. This might just be the start.

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  7. [...] het artikel op Gigaom. AKPC_IDS += [...]

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  8. [...] Twitter Under Fire for Link-shortening Service Plans [...]

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  9. I am suprised why people would complain about this and other services Twitter is consolidating and bringing under its wings, for Twitter to prosper and establish a credible business model, it needs to do these kinds of things

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