This post was inspired by a problem we needed to solve for ourselves. We experienced some pain with the short URLs we were using to share blog articles, news, and other content with our audience. Solving our problem was a great learning experience, and we think the skills we learned about working with URL shorteners will be helpful to you. They might even save you from some future grief.
What is a short URL?
The URLs you see in your browser can get pretty long. That might be okay while you're on a web page, but when you're sharing one of those URLs on social media, it can be ugly and cumbersome.
A short URL makes a long URL appear a lot neater. When you create a short URL, you're creating a shortcut to the long URL you see when you visit a web page. A user clicks on the short URL and is immediately navigated to the long URL. This all happens in the blink of an eye and is transparent to the end-user. The whole experience is made possible by the use of URL shorteners.
Use branded URLs
Branded URLs are a type of short URL. They're different because the person or company sharing the content brands them to match their unique brand identity. Branding URLs doesn't make them work any better. It just makes them more professional, and that does matter.
If you run any kind of a business and are thinking about using a URL shortener, you should brand your URLs. Otherwise, you're extending the brand of the URL shortener that you're using. When you see a link that begins with
bit.ly/_short-url, it's no secret what URL shortener the sharer is using. They're using Bitly, and they're adding Bitly's brand to everything they share. Our short URLs all look like
leapworks.something/_short-url, with more on that
.something in a bit.
Be specific about content type
Most URL shorteners can accommodate multiple domains and subdomains. That means you can use a different URL scheme for each type of content you share. A lot of companies use branded URLs like
social.example.com/_short-url. That's okay, but it's not all that informative. If the URL is being shared, the context is already social. The word "social" doesn't add any information that isn't already known. When using subdomains for your short URLs, use words that both describe the content you're sharing and inform your users. Here are some examples:
How specificity helps you with metrics
URL shorteners provide you with metrics about your content. They tell you how many people click on each short URL that you share, so you know what content is getting the most engagement and what's falling flat. You want to share more content that people value and less that people don't.
Not all clicks are created equal. As someone who creates and shares content, you have a few goals:
- To deliver value to your consumers and cement your brand position.
- To establish your company or yourself as an expert in your market: an authoritative source.
- To grow your consumer audience.
Using unique URL patterns for the different types of content you share is smart. The engagement you receive for each content type means something different. To get a better sense for what that means, we'll explain our own choices.
leapworks.blog to share content we've written ourselves with our audience. All the content we create is done with the intent to deliver value to our consumers. The amount of engagement we receive for a given piece of content lets us know whether or not the content was useful and if it solved a business problem. If our content isn't solving business problems, we need to change the type of content we create.
leapworks.fun to share content that's amusing. Funny content may get engagement, and it helps us show some personality, but it doesn't increase our domain expertise or credibility. Funny posts don't solve any business problems for our consumers.
leapworks.news to share information about us, LEAP WORKS. We'll call attention to announcements and press releases we issue and tell customers about changes to the products and services we offer. We may also link to a publication in which we're featured or quoted.
News helps us establish domain expertise and increase our credibility. It doesn't solve customer problems though. It's more of an endorsement, providing evidence that we're competent, and the advice we provide can be trusted.
leapworks.link to share third-party content which we believe our consumers will find valuable. We don't have a monopoly on useful information. We create valuable content, but so do many other individuals and companies. When we find something useful, we share it.
Engagement on third-party content is informative. It allows us to test topic ideas without first writing a complete article or deep-dive guide. If we see a lot of engagement on the third-party content, it's an indication that we can move forward with the related content we have in mind. Said another way, we sometimes use Link to find existing value and Blog to create new value.
You might be wondering why we don't get more granular about content than just Link. Good question. The short answer is; we hit diminishing returns pretty quickly. A technology article can also be a how-to guide. Similarly, an SEO or marketing article could be a how-to or tech article. A single article can span multiple content categories. Making narrow category distinctions wouldn't increase our consumers' understanding of the content we're sharing.
Boston (a location)
We're not using
leapworks.boston. We don't have an office in Boston. Instead, Boston is an example of how you might share information about happenings in a city or town. If you operate a local business, a location-specific URL is a great way to cross-promote community activities and events. It serves the greater good and enables consumers outside your domain to become familiar with you and consume your content. It does not directly increase your credibility within your domain, but can do so passively within a geographic area.
Use top-level domains instead of subdomains
It used to be that, almost every domain ended in
.net. That's not the case anymore. There are hundreds of other domain extensions or top-level domains (TLDs), and new ones are getting added all the time.
Using top-level domains with URL shorteners makes shared URLs...shorter. Here, you can see how it looks when you transition away from subdomains and start using top-level domains to convey meaning with your URLs:
In addition to making shorter URLs than subdomains, top-level domains have another benefit. Users read URLs from left-to-right. When using top-level domains, shared URLs are read in the following order: the person or business sharing the content, followed by the type of content being shared, followed by the piece of content being shared. That's pretty understandable, and it makes your brand the first thing the reader sees when you share content.
Make your top-level domains work with URL shorteners
Making top-level domains work with URL shorteners takes a little more effort than it does to make subdomains work. That said, if you've ever created a CNAME or any other type of DNS record, you have all the technical skills you need to make your branded top-level domain work with your URL shortener of choice.
A CNAME is a type of DNS record. It's essentially an alias. You can add a CNAME record to any subdomain you own and point the subdomain to a URL you don't own. When a user visits your owned subdomain in their browser, they actually visit the URL you don't own. They still see your branding though, giving users the appearance that you host the site or application.
We publish audio versions of our blog posts using Transistor, a podcast host. Our podcast's webpage is at blogcast.leapworks.io. We don't actually host that webpage. It's hosted by Transistor. You see our domain because we created the "blogcast" subdomain and pointed it to Transistor.
Add your owned top-level domain to Cloudflare
AAAA and ALIAS records are like CNAMEs. They're different in one important way. They point the top-level domain and extension to another URL. For example, we use Switchy to shorten links for our blog posts. Short links for our blog posts all begin with
leapworks.blog/_short-url. Shared links are an alias for a target at links.switchy.io. A person clicks on a short URL. Then, Switchy seamlessly routes the reader to our actual blog post at its long URL.
There's a problem. Few domain registrars make it possible for customers to create AAAA or ALIAS records. An extra step is needed to get URL shorteners working with top-level domains. Enter the solution, Cloudflare.
Cloudflare makes it really easy to add a website. If you don't have an account yet and are creating one for the first time, Cloudflare will walk you through the process of adding your first site. If you already have a site with Cloudflare, select the option to add another. Cloudflare will again walk you through the process.
Point your nameservers to Cloudflare
While adding your domain to Cloudflare, Cloudflare will provide you with two nameservers. Go to your domain registrar and update the nameserver values to match those provided by Cloudflare in their instructions. Once you're finished, you won't need to do anything more with your registrar.
Add your short URL's domain to your URL shortener
All paid URL shorteners provide the option to add a custom domain. Some free ones might as well.
Head to your URL shortener's settings and add a custom domain. When adding your domain, your URL shortener, no matter what provider you're using, will provide you with a target URL for when you create the required CNAME, AAAA, or ALIAS type of DNS record. Copy it to your clipboard to avoid future typos.
Create an AAAA or ALIAS DNS record in Cloudflare
Like many registrars and web hosts, Cloudflare doesn't provide feature support for AAAA or ALIAS records. They do something called CNAME Flattening, and it does what you need.
In Cloudflare, navigate your website's DNS settings. Then, create a CNAME record that points to the URL provided by the software provider of your URL shortener. Paste the value you copied from your URL shortener, and turn-off the proxy. The orange cloud will turn gray.
You've done all the work necessary to get your new domain working with your URL shortener. DNS changes take some time to update, so you'll need to wait before you can start using your branded domain to shorten links. Web hosts and DNS providers advertise that you may need to wait up to 24 hours. Realistically, you'll probably wait less than 15 minutes.
Start shortening links
Start sharing content and improving user experiences! You're in a great position to brand all the content you share and learn what content is met with the most engagement from your audience. With that understanding, you can create new content on subjects your users want to know more about and will value.