A Brief History of URL Shorteners

A Brief History of URL Shorteners


The first website address was http://info.cern.ch/hypertext/WWW/TheProject.html, which opened on August 6th, 1991. At the time, Tim Berners-Lee (the inventor of the web) wanted to make it possible for non-technical users to be able access and contribute content to an online repository of documents linked together by hypertext. To do this, he created URLs that were very simple in form:

They were simply descriptive phrases written in English that anyone could understand or remember (“The Project”). Since nearly every document at CERN had a similar name—and since they were all under development anyway—it was unnecessary to create more specific names (for example “doc-13-4-notes.html” instead of “TheProject.html”). Moreover, because the web was only used by a handful of people in its early days, namespace collisions were highly unlikely and therefore unnecessary to prevent (for example by choosing specific prefixes like “Docs:” or “Notes:” in front of each document’s name).

There are about 6 million characters in the English language, so if all web addresses had been 6 characters long back then, there would have been enough unique combinations for every website ever created! But again, since the web was pretty small at this time, it didn't really matter.

During the mid to late '90s, commercial use of the web started to take off. This, combined with an increase in the number of people using it, really started to stretch the limits of what was possible with simple English-based URLs. The URL http://www.example.com/us/index.htm could have meant anything, so more specific naming conventions were needed to prevent namespace collisions and ambiguity between different websites—not only for individual pages but also for entire websites themselves!

The first major change came about thanks to Netscape (an early internet browser) who implemented a new standard named "Netscape URLs" or "Universal Resource Locators." This format used colons instead sub-string directory paths to separate hierarchical elements (e.g., “http://www.example.com/us:index”) and allowed for a more natural parsing of URLs (for example, “www.example.com” goes to the root directory and “us:index” goes to a sub-directory called index).

However, Netscape's attempt at standardizing URLs resulted in even longer and more incomprehensible web addresses. Moreover, because of poor parsing algorithms it proved impossible for search engines to reliably map these URLs to actual content on the internet; leading them to create their own incompatible standards instead. This gave rise to yet another format which stood as a middle ground between human readability and computer parsability—and URL shorteners were born!

One of the first URL shortening services was TinyURL, which launched in 2001. Much like its modern counterparts, it used a simple encoding format to compress long URLs down to much shorter bit.ly-like addresses (e.g., “http://www.example.com/us:index” becomes “http://tinyurl.com/xxxxxx”). While this approach was successful at the time, it had two major problems.

First of all, because shortening services relied on HTML redirects instead of actual content for their destination URL, they completely broke when sites started using JavaScript redirection or actually created new unique content with each click! The second problem concerned the fact that these shortened links were very easy to guess—meaning if you knew what site your friend was clicking on, you could go straight to the target website without visiting the shortening service.

This is where Bitly comes in! Starting off as an internal tool at AdSense (an online advertising company), it allowed its users to shorten their links and track how successful they were. When offline tracking features like this started proving popular, Bitly decided to turn itself into a full-fledged product (launch date: March 2006). However, even more importantly, it also introduced two major advancements that made e-commerce possible on social media. First of all, it implemented an encrypted link format for better security (see section 2d of the canonical Bitly whitepaper). Secondly—and much more importantly—it worked by associating a unique identifier with each link, which meant you could track the ability of a single link to drive traffic back to your website. Today, Bitly boasts over 35 million active users and is the workhorse behind about half of all URL shorteners.

The past few years have been interesting for URL shorteners with several services rising and falling again in rapid succession. In April 2010, Google announced they would be shutting down their own service called "Google Shortener," a year later they introduced a similar but incompatible product called "+." Around the same time Twitter also retired their own tool called "t.co" only to introduce a new one named "TwitLonger" in June 2011 (which was supposed to replace it). But by September 2013, TwitLonger was retired as well resulting in the creation of an official URL shortener named "Bitly for Twitter" (in beta since October 2012 but still not stable). Unfortunately things didn't go much better for Bit.ly's own official Twitter integration which first went live in September 2011, only to be retired again three months later because it violated Twitter's API terms & conditions.

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