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October 30, 2007

Tinyurl links in our book: a good idea or a bad one?

by Josh Bernoff

We are now within spitting distance of handing in the manuscript of Groundswell to our editors at HBS Press. (Which means about 6 months until you can hold it in your hand.)

With Charlene's encouragement, it is now heavily footnoted (or perhaps more accurately, endnoted). This means when you see anything of interest in the text, we'll let you know how to connect with it online. Stats, articles, blog posts, discussion forums, the whole works. It is after all a book about people on the Internet, why not fill it with links?

The problem with this of course, is that URLs are long and ugly. So in a fit of inspiration, we've replaced nearly all the URLs in the endnotes with tinyurl addresses that will be easy for readers to type in on their on. Neatly solves the digital -> analog -> digital problem that books have.

From poking around a bit I see that tinyurl is blocked in some contexts because sometimes spammers use it to hide their real addresses. We of course, will only send you to interesting sites, some of which are filled with nasty language (it is, after all, real people talking) but none of which are bad for your computer.

So here's my question. Can anybody see a problem with using tinyurl addresses in our book, and if so, what is it? 'Cause if you out there can't find anything wrong with it, it sure looks like a good idea to me. What are the risks?

(Here's a nice David Pogue post on the topic with some interesting comments, and if you click and it doesn't work, tell me, because it's a tinyurl of course.)

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Comments

Mukund Mohan

Josh
No problems, but why bother. Why not provide the URL's online and GIVE ONE link to the website in your book. I'll assure you 80%+ of the people reading the book wont have access to a browser when they are reading the book and much less have the inclination to type bizzare numbers and letters combination. The other downside I see is frustration if they get one letter or number wrong. What if the end up going to some unintended site?

Peter Kim

Great idea from Mukund.

Another option would be to "tinyurl" everything yourself - create a domain, e.g. groundswell.forrester.com and put links in directories or as pages after.

Allen Stern

I agree with Peter. I would never rely on someone else's technology for a printed book. Create your own tinyurl (should take a few hrs max) and use that.

Or do as Mukund suggested and just point to one main url with references throughout the book. You could do something like:

(24.2 with a simple icon) - would be very classy I think.

cori

I think both of the preceding ideas are good ones, but it would still be potentially helpful to be able to see the urls of the resources in the end-notes - in some cases a fair amount of information can be gleaned about a link just from it's address and it would be nice to be able to see that metadata while reading the hard-copy. It would also be nice to have a short url - proxied by either Forrester or TinyURL - to actually type into the address bar. Is there a compelling reason not to include both?

Rafe

Don't use TinyUrl. It's a great service, but relying on it exposes you to risk. This is their SLA, from their site: "This service is provided without warranty of any kind."

Much better alternatives are from the previous commenters.

TDavid

Call me old-fashioned but I want to see the original links in print unless they are some ridiculously long URL (and wouldn't be otherwise relevant because of the length).

Barring that, I agree with Allen's idea. Get you own short URL (still some good 5 digit .com's out there) and use that for all URLs in the book.

Adam Snider

I essentially agree with Cori, although a part of me agrees with TDavid, about seeing the full URL in the footnote. While there is nothing inherently wrong with using TinyURL (or some variant of it), showing the full URL seems more professional, so long as it isn't so long that it's going to break onto multiple lines when shown in print.

Vicki

I applaud your idea and the fact that you're asking. But, I would also like to see the full URL in either footnote or endnotes.

I love the idea of a page at YOUR site where the reader can go to easily click on any of those URLs. From my own experience, I''m usually readin away from the computer. When I get to the computer, I hate to have to type in a long URL... or a short, weird, non-mnemonic combination of numbers and letters!

Hans de Kraker

I think it is a practical necessity to provide a tinyurl. If it is easy - you create your own as above. If you look at long link example in David P's post, nobody is going to go through the effort of typing in that url from the book, not even if they are reading the book and close to a computer. So inorder to provide people with URL's that are functional and they can do something with - Tiny would be a must - either theirs or your own. A Forrester service like this would add trust.

I don't care about seeing what is in the url - just want the content. As Forrester or Charlene Li or Josh Bernoff - I trust you will not lead me somewhere that is not contextual or useful.

Hans

Barbara

I think you need to brainstorm with some other analysts, in content and mobile applications, because there are many possibilities beyond forcing readers to type URL, tiny or not.

Why not build an online archive -- rather than an annotated online link farm? Enter into agreements with the web publishers you point to, to obtain rights to cache the pages/content/experience you are referencing. Face it: you won't be doing them any favors by forcing them to chose between serving up 404s to your readers, or freezing parts of their site for years to come.

Another option is providing dowloadable directories, app's, content for mobile phones, PCs, and Macs. Think in terms of sideloading, rather than manual key entry.

Finally, at least take phone recognition software out for a spin around the dance floor. In addition to camera phone apps that recognize bar codes, there are applications (in Japan, I guess) enabling camera phones to recognize email addresses and URLs.

Amit Patel

I agree that using TinyURL is risky, because the service may disappear at some point. In addition it obfuscates things like the domain and path, which can provide useful information even if you don't visit the page. URLs are references. Don't obfuscate them.

Put a URL/footnote number in the text like [31], and then in the footnote give the entire URL, in the book, so that people can see the original reference.

Then on the book's website let someone type in a footnote number to go to the URL, both with an HTML form and with short URLs such as groundswell.forrester.com/34

Books last a long time compared to web sites. Sometimes the URLs you give will no longer work years from now. When documents move, you can update groundswell.forrester.com/34 to point to the new page, or link to archive.org's copy, or give a page that says the reference is no longer available on the web.

MidtownNinja

I second Amit--books tend to last a lot longer than web sites. Writing a short-URL service is not a major task, but if you don't want to write your own service, perhaps you can use ma.gnolia.com, a social bookmarking service that also enables taking point-in-time snapshots of web sites.

Another tinyurl-like service, but with a time element is
WhenGuard (http://whenguard.com). This service provides jitlinks, which are time-sensitive links that won't function until after a certain time specified at creation has passed. Bloggers and publishers can use this service to publicize a pointer to time-sensitive information in advance and be secure in the knowledge that it'll become public at the intended time.

Kelly Rusk

As sort of mentioned above, the problem with Tiny URL is it's not very memorable, and it usually includes a mix of letters and numbers, so unless you're sitting at the computer with the book, the sites will be difficult to access.

I love the idea of building a page with all the relevant links. That also works for the "books last longer than web sites" theory, so if someone's link disappears, it can be replaced/removed with an explanation through the gateway page.

Mike Volpe

I would NOT use Tiny URL for this purpose.

1) You do not control the URLs. If you want to change them or describe them on the web or add context later, you can't. Also, who knows if Tiny URL will go away in 1, 2 or more years.

2) Tiny URLs are short, but the weird combinations of letters and numbers are not user friendly. You want more descriptive URLs.

A couple suggestions on things you could do:

1) Put all the links in a Delicious account dedicated to the book. That way you can tag everything, update it, share it describe it and more. And you can get great short URLs. For instnace, you could use this URL for the first link in your book
http://del.icio.us/groundswellbook/1

2) Get a domain and make your own human friendly URLs.

3) Put all the links on a single page on the website for your book, and just tell people which number link to go to.

Adrian Buerki

You may want to have a look at http://traceurl.com. The shortened URL can be aliased at traceurl.com and you get some stats to your URL. The origin of the accesses to your URLs can displayed on a Google Map.

Shashi B

I think you have a lot of great suggestions. What would work for me was a constant URL throughout the book and a identifier that changed.

example:

http://thenameofthebook/linktoquotedblog

I want to be able to remember the link when I go in front of a computer.

Larry Lim

I hate tiny URLs because...
It can be used to mask links to malicious sites that install virus/spyware on my PC.

I love tiny URLs because...
I can hide my affiliate IDs in links.

Btw, I use http://www.tiny9.com because it lets me specify tags instead of auto-generating links.

rosebud

The problem with tinyurl is that you have
no guarantee that the links will work from
one day to the next. I recently setup some
tinyurl links that not work anymore.

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