Never use a URL shortening service - even if you own it


The Guardian launched its online adventures back in 1999. At some point, they started using the name "Guardian Unlimited". Hey, the dot com boom made us all do crazy things! As part of that branding, they proudly used the domain GU.com

Over time, the branding faded and GU.com became a URL shortening service. Tiny URls like gu.com/abc could be printed in papers, sent via SMS, or posted on Twitter. They made a huge fanfare about how it would help with analytics.

You can read some of the history of the shortner to understand why it was created.

And now, for reasons best known to themselves, The Gaurdian have stopped the service and put GU.com up for sale.

The starting price is TWO AND HALF MILLION DOLLARS!

Look, if I had an asset that valuable and was looking at declining revenue, I'd sell it.

But breaking that URl comes with a problem. I've written before about why URl shortening is bad for users and bad for the web. I've even helped publish government guidance about it. But all of those were based on the premise that the shortener was a 3rd party service. I never thought someone would be as daft as to switch off their own service.

Here are some of the problems this sale causes.

Is there a tweet somewhere of a future politician saying "I support this 100% GU.com/...."? Redirect that to something horrific and you have a potential scandal on your hand.

There are lots of academic papers with gu.com shortened links. Those are all now dead.

Millions of links around the web - including many on the Grauniad itself - are all now broken.

The Guarrdian could fix this by publishing a list of all the shortened URls. That wouldn't stop links breaking, but would make it possible for researchers to reconstruct the original destination.

For decades, we've tried to remind people that "Cool URls Don't Change". We'll just have to hope that the people of the future find a way to decipher all these obsolete links.


Share this post on…

13 thoughts on “Never use a URL shortening service - even if you own it”

  1. Julian Bond says:

    The Grauniad should make a SQLite database file of the expansions database public domain. A 3rd party could then provide an expansion API at say gulegacy.co.uk.

    Arguably, the Guardian should actually do this itself. So, say, guardian.co.uk/gu.com/foo would redirect to the same place as gu.com/foo used to.

    Reply
  2. Ian says:

    Setting aside the issues of not using a url shortener etc - it's looks initially like a valuable domain as it has a domain ranking score of 66/100 from ahrefs.

    The downside, is that every single link is pointing to a wide variety of news articles on The Guardian, so from an SEO perspective, if a firm bought the domain name to boost their SEO, it's not that amazing due to the lack of focus and brand association.

    Reply
  3. said on brandontreb.com:

    I love that you specify ”even if you own it”. Being a dev, I have implemented countless url shortening services and the like only to abandon them years (or even months) later.
    No one wants to “own” this software long term. Especially, when it’s a utility-based service with no ROI.
    I’m surprised anyone would use a shortening service in 2023. It seems like a relic of the old Twitter days with the sole purpose of providing a solution to the character limit.

    Reply | Reply to original comment on brandontreb.com
  4. Alex says:

    By your logic, we might as well never use URLs either.. if the Guardian used their own domain for URLs and decided to rebrand to The Protectors, and switched to theprotectors.co.uk they could also sell theguardian domain and invalidate thousands of existing URLs.
    I think your post title should be "Don't sell your domains" or "Don't rely on the internet".

    Reply

What are your reckons?

All comments are moderated and may not be published immediately. Your email address will not be published.Allowed HTML: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong> <p> <pre> <br> <img src="" alt="" title="" srcset="">