Everything You Need To Know About URL Shorteners

By TinyURL Marketing

Last updated on August 17, 2023

What are URL shorteners? What are URL shorteners used for? Why would someone want to pay for a URL shortener when there are plenty of free options? We dive deep into the history, uses, and value of URL shorteners in this comprehensive guide.

URL shorteners have been around for a long time, but not many people understand how they work – or how to use them most effectively in their online business. 

We’ll cover all there is to know in this comprehensive guide to URL shorteners. By the end of this post, you’ll understand how URL shorteners work on a technical level and the surprising benefits and use cases they can provide to the modern business owner. 

Let’s get started!

What Are URL Shorteners?

A URL shortener is an app that allows you to take long, unwieldy URLs and turn them into shorter, more aesthetically pleasing URLs. 

Here’s how it works: 

  1. Choose the link you’d like to be shortened. 
  2. Use a URL shortening service to create a shortened link.
  3. Use the shortened URL in place of the longer one. 

The original URL still exists, as the shortened URL merely redirects the user to the longer URL. Truly, it’s as simple as setting up a digital signpost for your browser to follow.

It’s a simple process, but URL shorteners have a surprisingly wide array of benefits and use cases. We’ll discuss all those at length, so stick around!

A Brief History of URL Shorteners

Back in 2002, a man named Kevin Gilbertson was sending emails to his unicycling newsletter subscribers. 

He was having a lot of trouble with getting the longer links in those emails to work, as the formatting limitations of the time meant that many of them weren’t clickable upon sending. 

To fix this problem, Kevin –a 24-year-old computer engineer– developed TinyURL, the world’s first URL shortener.

Word started spreading quickly, and users started signing up en masse once they realized the service’s potential. Within a few years, TinyURL had become a staple tool for businesses and users worldwide. 

Users weren’t the only ones to take notice. A few people saw the monetary potential in such a tool, and nearly 100 competing services sprung up to try and capitalize on the demand. Some of the more notable ones to follow in TinyURL’s footsteps include, Rebrandly, and the now defunct 

Eventually, the link shortening services began offering advanced use cases like branded domains, link analytics, and more.

The rest, as they say, is history.

How URL Shorteners Work

To understand how URL shorteners work, we need to go through a quick primer on how URLs work. 

URL Basics

URLs, or Uniform Resource Locators, are the addresses of webpages on the internet. 

They’re made up of several parts: 

  • Protocol (like http or https)
  • Path (like /blog). 

Together, these parts guide your web browser to the correct webpage on the internet.

A URL shortener is a tool that generates short and catchy URLs that send traffic over to long and unwieldy destination URLs. 

It’s like a nickname for a long, complicated name. The short URL is easier to share and remember but still leads to the same webpage as the original long URL.

Here’s a step-by-step breakdown of how a URL shortener works:

  1. You provide the URL shortener with a long URL you want to shorten.
  2. The URL shortener generates a unique identifier for this long URL. This identifier is usually a random series of characters – known as an alias or hash – but some shortening services let you choose the identifier or even use a personalized vanity domain.
  3. The URL shortener combines its domain name with the unique identifier to create a new, short URL.
  4. The URL shortener stores the long URL and its corresponding short URL in a database. This allows the service to remember and retrieve the long URL when the short URL is used.

The Redirection Process

When someone clicks on the short URL, the URL shortener redirects them to the original, long URL. Here’s how that process works:

  1. When a user clicks on or enters the short URL into their browser, a request is sent to the URL shortener’s server.
  2. The URL shortener’s server uses the unique identifier in the short URL to look up the corresponding long URL in its database.
  3. Once the long URL is found, the URL shortener’s server sends an HTTP response to the user’s browser. This response includes a status code instructing the browser to redirect to the long URL.
  4. The user’s browser follows the redirect instruction and loads the webpage at the long URL.

Different Types of URL Shorteners

There are several types of URL shorteners, each with its own method of redirecting users to the original URL:

  1. 301 redirects: The most common type of redirect, these are permanent redirections that tell the browser that the original URL has permanently moved to the new URL.
  2. 302 redirects: These are temporary redirects that indicate the original URL has moved to a new location, but only for a limited period. This type of redirect is useful when the content of a webpage is expected to move back to the original URL in the future.
  3. 307 Redirects: These are also temporary redirects, similar to 302 redirects. The difference is that a 307 redirect guarantees that the method and the body of the original request are unchanged when the redirected request is made.
  4. JavaScript redirects: These redirections use JavaScript to redirect the user to the new URL. When the short URL is clicked, a JavaScript function runs that redirects the user.

Branded Domains

A branded domain is a domain that incorporates the name of the brand or a variant of it within its structure.

Graphic of a URL address bar with "brand name" called out in a speech bubble, inserted between "https://www." and ".com"

Take, for instance, the New York Times. They utilize a customized vanity domain – – which seamlessly redirects to their main domain.

This strategic use of a branded domain serves to amplify their brand recognition, as each shortened URL inherently carries the brand’s name. It also fosters a sense of trust among users, who are generally more inclined to click on a link that features a familiar and reputable brand.

Link Analytics

Some link shorteners provide analytics on the use of the short URL. This can include data such as the number of clicks, the geographic location of users, and the sources of the clicks (like social media, email, or direct traffic).

Some custom URL shorteners provide analytics on the use of the short URL. This can include data such as:

  • The number of clicks on the short URL
  • The geographic location of the users clicking the link
  • The sources of the clicks (like social media, email, or direct traffic)

The time of day the URL was clicked. 

The type of browser, OS, or devices used when clicking the link. 

For example, here’s a view of a TinyURL link analytics dashboard:

Screenshot of the TinyURL dashboard

There’s a lot we didn’t show in this screenshot; we’ll share more a bit later in the post. 

Advantages of Using a URL Shortener

While custom URL shorteners can make your links prettier, they also provide many more surprising benefits. 

Making Links More Readable

URL shorteners are like a magic wand for unwieldy web addresses, simplifying long and complex URLs and making them more readable, memorable, and shareable. 

This makes the links easier to use and helps avoid typing errors, broken links, and formatting issues that can occur with long URLs.

For instance, an ugly URL like this: 

…can become something as simple as ““. 

This not only makes the link easier on the eyes, but also makes it more user-friendly. It’s a win-win!

Saving Space Where Character Limits Matter

Space is a precious commodity on services like X (formerly Twitter), where there’s a strict 280-character limit, or SMS, where there’s a 160-character limit. 

Every character counts, and long URLs will eat up your limit quickly.

In these situations, a URL shortener can make your life much easier. For example, if your URL is 100 characters long, a URL shortener might shrink it to just 20 characters. That leaves you with 80 extra characters to get your message across in a more detailed fashion.  

Making Brands More Recognizable

Branding is crucial in today’s digital world. You want your audience to recognize your brand instantly, and believe it or not, URL shorteners can help with that. 

For starters, some services allow for custom URLs, which can include your brand name.

URL shorteners can also be a powerful branding tool. They allow businesses to create branded links that reflect their identity and message. 

By using custom domains that are relevant and meaningful to their brand, businesses can increase their brand awareness, engagement, and conversions. 

Here are some examples of businesses that use custom URL shorteners to improve their brand recognition:

Making Links Easier to Recognize and Trust

Malware and scams are everywhere, and most people are understandably wary of clicking on links they don’t recognize. 

That’s another area where URL shorteners shine. If a link is shortened using a custom domain, it can appear more trustworthy, increase click-through rates, and drive more traffic to your site.

For example, “” is less trustworthy than (where your branded domain fills in for “example”), as people can make a clearer, more direct link to your brand. 

Another situation in which URL shorteners can help improve trust is in trimming long links filled with extra parameters. 

Long links filled with UTM parameters and other link clutter can intimidate some people or otherwise appear off-putting. Replacing those with shorter links whose intent and destination are clarified in the alias is more likely to generate clicks. 

Providing Tracking and Analytics

Last but not least, many link shorteners offer analytics. This means you can track how many times your link was clicked, where those clicks came from, and when they happened.

You likely already use an analytics tool, but the tracking and analytics capabilities of a premium URL shortening service can shore up weaknesses in tools like Google Analytics where you can’t differentiate between different sources of direct traffic. 

We’ll discuss the tracking and analytics capabilities in more detail later in the post, so keep reading to learn how it can upgrade your marketing capabilities. 

Common Use Cases for URL Shorteners

SMS Marketing 

SMS marketing is a powerful tool in the modern digital landscape. 

With an impressive average open rate of 98% per SlickText, it far outstrips email, which hovers around 21% according to Campaign Monitor. 

However, the 160-character limit per message in SMS marketing can make it challenging to include long URLs while maintaining cost efficiency. 

Link shorteners are a powerful tool in the SMS marketer’s toolkit, as they help save valuable message space, fit more content, and calculate click-through rates (CTR) for their campaigns. 

They also enable the creation of branded links, which increase trust and recognition among recipients. 

Imagine sending a link that reads “” instead of a long, complex URL like

It’s not only more readable but also reinforces the quality of your brand with every message.

Email Marketing 

Email marketing is another area where URL shorteners shine. 

With an average ROI of $36 for every dollar spent, email marketing is a golden opportunity for marketers. But, like any digital strategy, it has its challenges – especially when it comes to links. 

  • Spam filters can block or flag emails containing suspicious or malicious links. 
  • Long, cluttered URLs can also detract from the quality of your content and take up valuable screen space. 
  • Some email marketing tools have notoriously basic link-tracking capabilities. 

Link shorteners help you avoid these issues by providing short, clean, and branded URLs that effectively track direct traffic without the need for unsightly UTM tags.

Author’s note: Tracking direct traffic sources was a particularly tricky problem in my business, and TinyURL was surprisingly effective in helping me figure that out. We highly recommend reading this guide on how to get more value out of direct traffic if you’re having issues tracking direct traffic in your business. 

Moreover – as we previously mentioned – custom URL shorteners are mobile-friendly. 

This is vitally important, as 81% of all emails are opened and read on mobile devices

With the majority of people reading emails on their phones, it’s essential that you mitigate the negative effects of long URLs that will quickly eat up valuable screen space. Once again, shortened links are the answer. 

Offline Marketing

Offline marketing – including traditional channels like print, radio, TV, or billboards – can benefit greatly from URL shorteners. 

While offline marketing can be difficult to measure and track, link shorteners paired with QR codes can bridge the gap between the physical and digital worlds. 

Here’s an example that shows the full potential of link shortening in offline marketing:

Let’s say you make three billboards, each with a QR code pointing to your home page. 

If you create identical QR codes with a direct link to your website, you won’t know which billboard drives the most traffic. 

But if you create separate shortened URLs for each billboard and embed them into unique QR codes, you can use the link analytics on your URL shortening service to identify which billboard is most effective. 

A comprehensive analytics dashboard – like the one on TinyURL – can even show you which days of the week, times of day, and locations generate the most traffic, helping you plan out future campaigns with more precise data about what works best. 

Screenshot of the TinyURL analytics widget for clicks by user geography
Screenshot of the TinyURL analytics widget for clicks by popular times and popular days

Additionally, custom branded domains can make links easier to remember and type, enhancing the effectiveness of offline marketing campaigns where you rely on people remembering the link and manually entering it into their phone. 

Alternative to UTM Tags

UTM tags are parameters added to the end of a URL to track the source, medium, campaign, term, and content of web traffic. 

While they’re useful for measuring and optimizing online marketing campaigns, they can also make URLs long, complex, and unappealing.

Link shorteners offer a neat and aesthetically pleasing solution. They allow online marketers to create custom short links for each distribution channel or ad CTA, thereby performing the same data-tracking functions as UTM links without the ugly link clutter. 

Best Practices for Using URL Shorteners

Use Branded Domains

Another best practice for using custom URL shorteners is to leverage branded domains. 

Branded domains are custom domains that reflect your brand’s identity and message. Instead of the link shortener’s domain, you can use a domain that aligns with your brand.

You can easily create a branded domain in TinyURL with just a few clicks. If you don’t have one, TinyURL makes it easy to register one through the dashboard. 

If you already have a branded domain – or if you want to use a subdomain that branches off of your primary domain – it’s easy to transfer DNS to TinyURL and set everything up. 

Screenshot of the TinyURL Branded Domain management screen

If you’re using TinyURL for a business use case, We don’t recommend using as your domain. While it’s a terrific product, it’s also been freely accessible to the internet at large for over 20 years. Spammers have a long history of abusing free, public services, and you don’t want your audience to associate you with that crowd. 

We also recommend ditching the default alias in favor of something custom, as it will give your links a better chance of being noticed and clicked. 

Ditch Default Aliases

When you’re using URL shorteners, one of the first things you’ll notice is the default alias. 

These are the random combinations of letters and numbers automatically generated when you shorten a URL, resulting in something like While this may be the quickest solution, it usually isn’t the best approach.

Default aliases can be cryptic and off-putting to users. They’re often a jumble of characters that don’t provide any context or information about the link’s content. This can make users hesitant to click, as they may perceive the link as untrustworthy or irrelevant.

Instead of relying on default aliases, consider using custom aliases that include keywords or phrases related to the link’s content. 

For instance, if you’re promoting a Halloween sale for your online store, you might use a custom alias like “spooky-discounts”. This results in a URL like, which is far more descriptive and user-friendly.

Leverage Analytics

As we mentioned, one of the most powerful features of premium URL shorteners like TinyURL is their ability to provide detailed analytics about your links. These analytics can offer valuable insights into how your links are being used, helping you measure and optimize their performance.

We’re not saying you should replace your current analytics program with that of a link shortener. That wouldn’t be a good idea. 

The real opportunity lies in using the analytics capabilities of both

Augmenting the comprehensive data-tracking of a dedicated system like Google Analytics or Adobe Analytics with the smart implementation of an enterprise-level URL shortener like TinyURL can supercharge your marketing efforts. 

We already discussed the potential for using TinyURL to track the performance of offline marketing campaigns in a way that normal Analytics can’t. But there’s so much more you can do:

  • Real-time campaign optimization: Some analytics programs don’t offer comprehensive data until hours or even days after the data is received. With real-time link performance, you can optimize your campaigns on the fly. For example, suppose you’re running a time-sensitive ad campaign and notice that a particular link is performing well on mobile devices. In that case, you can instantly ramp up the budget for the ad associated with that link.
  • Group tracking: TinyURL allows you to track links individually or by groups (tags). This can be useful when you’re running multiple campaigns or sharing links across different platforms. You can group related links and track their collective performance over time.
  • Social media tracking: Traditional analytics programs can struggle to accurately track social media traffic, especially if your links are on social accounts you don’t own (such as when you partner with influencers). With TinyURL, you can create unique links for each platform and channel to better understand which is driving the most traffic.
  • A/B testing: You can use TinyURL to conduct A/B testing on your marketing campaigns. By creating two different shortened URLs for the same destination, you can track which version performs better in terms of clicks and conversions.

Shorten Your UTM Links

UTM links are a common tool for tracking the performance of online marketing campaigns. 

These links include parameters at the end of the URL that provide information about the source, medium, campaign, term, and content of web traffic. 

While UTM links are incredibly useful for measuring and optimizing your campaigns, they can also make your URLs long, complex, and unappealing to users. 

URL shorteners can shorten your UTM links, making them more readable and shareable without losing tracking capabilities. 

Moreover, custom URL shorteners can provide additional analytics that complements or even replaces the information provided by UTM parameters. 

For example, they can show you how many clicks each link receives, where those clicks are coming from, and what actions users take after they click. This can give you a more comprehensive understanding of your campaign’s performance and help you make data-driven decisions to improve it.

Mix Shortened Links and QR Codes

Finally, a URL shortener can be a great tool for integrating your online and offline marketing efforts. One way to do this is by pairing shortened URLs with QR codes.

QR codes are scannable codes that link to web pages or other online content. When a user scans a QR code with their smartphone, they’re taken directly to the linked content, making it a seamless experience.

URL shorteners can help you create these QR codes and link them to your shortened URLs. For example, TinyURL enables you to create QR codes in multiple file formats:

Screenshot of the QR code view on a TinyURL link

With TinyURL, you can track and measure the usage of your QR codes, just like you would with any other link. You can see how many times each QR code is scanned, when and where those scans are happening, and what actions users take after scanning.

This can be particularly useful for offline marketing materials like posters, flyers, or billboards where users are unlikely to type in any links you share with them. 

How to Know if a URL Shortener is Right for You

Not sure if a URL shortener is right for your business? Consider whether you could use help in any of these areas. 

You Want To Drive Traffic to Key Destinations

Driving traffic to key online destinations is critical to any business strategy. 

These destinations could range from your company’s main website to a specific blog post, a scheduling form, a social media page, or any other digital platform where you want your audience to engage.

Link shorteners can be a game-changer in this process by transforming a long, complex URL into a simple, attractive link that encourages clicks and conversions. 

You Care About the Results Your Links Are Getting

If you’re investing time and resources into creating content, it’s only natural that you’d want to know the effectiveness of your efforts. This is where the analytics provided by URL shorteners come into play.

URL shorteners can provide you with valuable data about your links. They can tell you how many people are clicking on your links, where these clicks are coming from (e.g., from social media, email, or your website), when they are clicking (allowing you to identify peak traffic times), and what actions they are taking after clicking (such as making a purchase, signing up for a newsletter, or downloading a resource).

This information can help you understand how your audience interacts with your content and can guide your future marketing strategies. 

You Want To Avoid the Problem of Sending the Wrong Links

Sending the wrong or broken links can be detrimental to your business. It can lead to a poor user experience, lost sales, and a damaged reputation. 

URL shorteners can help you avoid these issues by easily editing your links without changing their appearance or breaking them. This is particularly useful when you need to update a link in a piece of content that’s already been published or shared.

For instance, if you’ve shared a link to a product that’s no longer available, you can update the link to direct users to a similar product or to a page where they can sign up to be notified when the product is back in stock. This way, you’re not losing potential customers, and you’re providing a better user experience.

You’re Concerned About Building Trust and Brand Recall

Trust and brand recall are crucial for any business. When your audience recognizes and trusts your brand, they’re more likely to engage with your content and convert into customers.

URL shorteners can help you build trust and improve brand recall by allowing you to create branded links, which can increase your brand awareness, engagement, and conversions. 

You’re Rethinking the Look and Feel of Your Website’s Domain Name

Your website’s domain name is often the first point of contact between your brand and potential customers. It must be memorable, meaningful, and appealing.

URL shorteners let you hit ‘reset’ on domains you’ve already selected. If you’re rethinking a domain name you decided on long before you stopped to think about link aesthetics and performance, you can easily set yourself up with a shorter, sleeker domain and use it to set up redirects.

You Want To Take a More Organized Approach to Your Links

As your business grows and your digital presence expands, managing your links can become daunting. A premium link shortener can help you take a more organized approach to your links.

In addition to the time and location-based data We shared earlier, a premium service like TinyURL lets you:

Tag links for easier organization

Screenshot of the tag management view on TinyURL

Filter by tag or alias to easily find the links you need 

Screenshot of the recent URLs pane on TinyURL

View analytics during a certain period

Screenshot of the date selector on TinyURL's analytics view

View top referral sources and languages

Screenshot of the TinyURL analytics widgets for traffic by top referrer and top languages

View top browsers, operating systems, and devices

Screenshot of the TinyURL analytics widgets for traffic by top browsers, OS, and devices

These data points can help you keep track of your links and understand which ones are performing well and which ones need improvement.


If any of these points resonate with your current business needs, then a URL shortener could be a valuable tool. 

It’s not just about making a link shorter, but about enhancing your brand, improving user experience, and gaining valuable insights into your audience’s behavior.

Remember, the key to successfully using a URL shortener lies in understanding your business needs and how a URL shortener can address them. 

Whether you want to drive traffic, track results, avoid incorrect links, build brand recall, rethink your domain name, or better organize your links, a premium link shortening service like TinyURL can be a powerful tool in your digital marketing arsenal.

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