url shortener

url shortener

19.May.2022

The Google URL Shortener was shut down three years ago (RIP), and since then, the internet—me included—has been trying to find the next best option for how to shorten a link.

With over a decade of experience reviewing tech and web apps, I can tell you there's almost never one perfect solution. (The only exception to this is takeout: the best answer is always pizza.) The best URL shortening service depends on what you need and want it to do. There are simple, fast, and free URL shortening apps; marketing- and analytics-focused ones that break down details about who's clicking your links; and even options that allow you to add calls-to-action to your links, or redirect people based on where they are in the world. 

To help you find the right URL shorteners for most people, I tested more than 35 different options. These are the best—and what makes them great. 

 

At its most basic, a URL shortener takes some long, unwieldy link and turns it into a shorter link, one that's easy to share. For example, if you're making an ad for a roommate, you can take something like http://www.example.com/my-super-awesome-blog-about-squirrels/2022/10/23/live-with-a-squirrel-fan--they%27re-awesome, and turn it into https://tinyurl.com/live-with-me.

This shortened link means whoever sees your ad has an easy-to-type URL to visit, rather than having to type some long unintelligible string of text where they're almost guaranteed to make a mistake. And it's not just for ads for roommates; URL shorteners allow you to provide a typable link on a business card, print ad, podcast interview, or any other situation where someone can't just click on a nice hyperlink.

While URL shorteners used to be useful for shortening longer links to fit character limits on social media and messaging apps, a lot of platforms take care of that for you. Twitter, for example, automatically shortens any shared links 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 exclusively using SMS.

In addition to that basic capability, here are the features I was looking for in a link shortener:

  • Analytics and click tracking. If you share someone else's blog post with your audience, for example, you won't know much about how many people—and who—clicks through; all that data will be in the other person's Google Analytics account. If you use a URL shortener, however, you'll have a unique short URL, so you'll also be able to see how many clicks the link gets, where they're coming from, and what devices people are using. Like with most marketing services, the more detailed and powerful these analytics, the higher the cost. Free services tend to have basic click tracking (although there's often a time limit), while premium marketing options will collect as much data as possible—and even allow you to serve different URLs to people in different places or using different devices.

  • Customization of URLs. The best URL shorteners all allow you to customize your shortened URLs. This means you can make your URLs more relevant, or use different links in multiple ads or social media posts to compare click-through rates. Many basic or free plans for a short link generator 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 (so you get squirre.ls/awesome).

  • Standalone app. 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. We also didn't consider apps like Shor. that use a single updatable URL to get around a social media profile's limits on the number of links you can have in your bio. It's not that these services aren't good, but they go far beyond what most people need a URL shortener to do.

  • Value for price. I paid particular attention to pricing tables and what each short URL generator offered at the different tiers. Some free plans are actually better than other apps' paid plans, at least if you don't want incredibly detailed analytics.

I've been testing apps for this list for the past two years. To update the list this year, I spent time with dozens of apps, shortening URLs and generally exploring how well they worked. URL shortening isn't a complex task, at least from a user interface perspective, so this was mostly to get a feel for how nice they were to use and what extra features and analytics they offered. Apps with more advanced features, like the ability to add CTAs to your links, took more testing than simple free options.

In general, I relied on my experience using and testing software over the past decade to make any close judgment calls, as well as considering my notes on all the different apps from last year. If an app seemed under continuous development and was improving, it was much more likely to be considered favorably than one that looked to be stagnating. 

With that, let's look at the best link shorteners.

Interested in doing even more with your URL shorteners? Check out our tips for how to use automation to track them, send them, and stay on top of performance.