Social Networks and their URL Shorteners

Tue, Jul 17, 2012

I have been noticing lately that much of the traffic that my blog receives comes from Twitter’s domain or Google+’s domain. I don’t receive much traffic and I don’t particularly care about the amount of traffic. However, when I see traffic from Google+ or Twitter, I know that somebody is discussing or sharing my posts and I am curious to know who is doing that. But if I look at where the traffic comes from, with the hope that I will be able to find Tweets or Google+ updates where people are talking about my content, all I would be able to see is a or URL that redirects to my page. While it is mildly frustrating, I have been thinking why both Twitter and Google+ replace every URL users share on their network and replace it with their own URLs that does a redirect to the original content being shared.

I think I finally understand why. Data about user’s sharing content is of huge interest to a lot of people, most importantly marketers. URL shortening services like have been able to come up with some interesting analysis about content sharing trends. The difference now is that the social networks themselves have taken over URL shortening and by way of that capturing and hiding user’s sharing habits.

Consider this scenario. You find something interesting on the web that you would like your followers and friends to see. It could be a new interesting startup, a programmer’s rant, a tutorial, a new framework or the Internet’s most favourite thing - cat pictures. You have a browser plugin that nicely shortens the rather long URL and gives you a new URL. You share it on Twitter. Twitter does not post the nice URL. Instead, it converts it into a URL that redirects to the URL. From that point onwards, all knows is that a lot of people are sharing a particular URL. Unless they figure out where the URL redirects to or does a Twitter search for the URL, they don’t have a clear idea of who shared the URL.

To understand the impact of this, lets look at another scenario. Francis Keogh, a journalist with the BBC shares a piece of Football transfer news on Twitter:

"Screenshot of tweet saying 'West Ham close on deal to sign Mali striker Modibo Maiga'"

He obviously uses a shortened URL generated with BBC’s shortener. BBC, being the media company they are have huge interest in knowing who shares their content, when and where. But all that their analytics system setup around will be able to tell is that a lot of traffic is coming from the URL which is not of much use to them because it strips the who and where aspects of the act of sharing.

Now here comes the money part of it. There is somebody who has full knowledge of this sharing - Twitter. They know who, when and where the content was shared by. If media companies and others want to figure out who shares their content, you have to ask Twitter. And it looks like to me that Twitter won’t give that information away easily. Twitter could charge these companies and I would think that there will be a lot of companies interested in buying this data.

While I showed an example of how Twitter does this, Google+ does something very similar. And I would assume Facebook does the same with its URL shortener. I am not sure, and I can not verify because I don’t have a Facebook account.

In a nutshell, social networks that are about sharing hides knowledge about the content people share behind a system that only they have access to and can potentially make a lot of money from that data. Pretty clever of them, if you ask me.