At its most basic, a URL shortener takes some long, unwieldy link and turns it into a shorter, easy-to-share one. For example, you can take something like http://www.example.com/my-blog/2021/my-super-awesome-blogpost-about-squirrels-and-why-they%27re-awesome-too, and turn it into https://tinyurl.com/awesome-squirrels. This enables you to provide a memorable, typable link on a business card, print ad, podcast interview, or any other situation where someone can't click on a hyperlink.
URL shorteners can also be useful for shortening longer links to fit character limits on social media and messaging apps, although a lot of platforms take care of that for you. Twitter, for example, automatically shortens any shared links with its t.co shortening service, while iMessage obscures any links behind a preview card. If you're just sending things to your friends, you only really need to worry about URL shortening if you're using SMS.
Another thing most good URL shorteners offer is some kind of analytics and click tracking. If you share someone else's website address with your audience, you don't necessarily know who clicks through. If you use a URL shortener, however, you'll be able to collect data like the number of clicks the link gets, where they're coming from, and what devices people are using. Generally speaking, the more detailed and powerful these analytics, the higher the cost of the service. Free services tend to have basic click tracking, while premium marketing services will collect as much data as possible—and even allow you to serve different URLs to people in different places or using different devices.
Our favorite URL shorteners all allow you to customize the shortened URLs. This means you can use different links in multiple ads or social media posts to compare click-through rates. The basic or free plans may only let you change the last part of the URL (so you get https://tinyurl.com/awesome-squirrels) while the more business-focused services enable you to use a custom domain.
There are lots of different URL shortening options out there, and we limited our search to easy-to-set-up, standalone services. There are self-hosted versions, like Polr and Yourls, that, while free and powerful, require too much technical knowledge to easily recommend. There are also URL shorteners built into other apps that we didn't consider. For example, Ow.ly is fully integrated into Hootsuite, and most newsletter services have some kind of URL shortening and tracking. It's not that these services aren't good, but they go far beyond what most people need a URL shortener to do.
So, let's look at the best options that made our list.
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