Today I was listening to this Week in Tech 207 when I, again, heard the downside of URL-shorteners. There is a security risk in clicking on a shortened URL because you don’t know beforehand where the link is going to. You presume that you can trust someone that mails you the URL or you follow on Twitter. But the link might actually lead you to a malware or fishing site. Are URL shorteners therefore bad? No, just use them wisely. Only reluctantly click on them if you really trust the person sending it to you AND you are using anti-malware software. I know people that never ever click on a shortened URL.
Why are we using URL-shorteners then? Because they are short and a tweet is only 140 characters long so you save a lot of space for text. Because an SMS is only 160 characters long and it is a hassle to copy a long url to a browser. Because mailclients break a long URL with linefeeds. Because…
They both offer very simple ways to preview a shortened URL. With tinyurl just put “preview” before the url. So http://tinyurl.com/2x6rgl becomes http://preview.tinyurl.com/2x6rgl. With bit.ly put a “+” after the URL which is the same as “info” in between. So http://bit.ly/GH4Cn becomes http://bit.ly/GH4Cn+ or http://bit.ly/info/GH4Cn. Tinyurl is promoting the preview option but on the bit.ly site it is hidden in their blog.
Searching for the preview options of the other URL-shorteners I found longurl which gives you the option to enter a shortened URL which it then exands for you. They also offer a Firefox-plugin and an API. Some Twitter-clients such as Tweetdeck, but also search.twitter.com, offer options to (auto)-expand a shortened URL which is almost the same as previewing it. They might be using the longurl API, but that is something I don’t know.
To summarize: URL-shorteners are great, but use them wisely. And if you are not sure of the content preview or expand it first.