Twitter, just two months after starting a flame war of sorts over whether it would acquire or go into competition with companies that were just “filling holes” in its service, is finally moving to fill one of the biggest holes the social network has had since it launched: the lack of a built-in link shortener. A post on the Twitter blog explains how the company has been shortening links in direct messages since March, in part to provide more security against phishing attempts — and will soon roll out the use of the t.co link shortener as a “wrapper” for all links.
The term “wrapper” means that every link that passes through Twitter will be shortened via the t.co system — and not just long links, but even links that have already been shortened by some other method, such as a competing service like Bit.ly or a white-label version such as the New York Times custom shortener. These links will still appear to users in the same way, but they will be shortened via t.co as they make their way through the Twitter system. When it comes to long links, Twitter hasn’t decided yet what they will look like exactly, as staffer Sean Garrett explains in the blog post:
A really long link such as http://www.amazon.com/Delivering-Happiness-Profits-Passion-Purpose/dp/0446563048 might be wrapped as http://t.co/DRo0trj for display on SMS, but it could be displayed to web or application users as amazon.com/Delivering- or as the whole URL or page title. Ultimately, we want to display links in a way that removes the obscurity of shortened link and lets you know where a link will take you.
Garrett also explained that t.co links will be a maximum of 20 characters, so once the feature is rolled out to all users, links added to tweets will only use up 20 characters, regardless of their actual size.
The immediate response from many observers was to see the new feature as a Bit.ly killer, and it is clearly competition for that service, which was one of a number of link shorteners that sprang up to fill the void when Twitter first launched. But Bit.ly has moved on from its reliance on Twitter, as Betaworks founder John Borthwick described in a recent blog post. In any case, it’s clear that the real point of Twitter’s new feature isn’t to kill Bit.ly or any other service, but to accumulate data about the links that are shared on the network. As the Twitter blog post describes it:
Routing links through this service will eventually contribute to the metrics behind our Promoted Tweets platform and provide an important quality signal for our Resonance algorithm—the way we determine if a Tweet is relevant and interesting to users. We are also looking to provide services that make use of this data, an example would be analytics within our eventual commercial accounts service.
As Bit.ly understood long before Twitter did (or before Twitter did anything about it), the data underlying the links that are shared by users is far more important than the simple act of shortening a link. The analytical data that could emerge from seeing everything that is shared in tens of millions of tweets every day could produce an incredibly valuable storehouse of information about what stories or websites or content is getting the most activity, in real time. It’s about time the service started paying attention to it.
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