That's exactly what happened yesterday, when word came out that both companies were launching URL shorteners, tools that help you share a long Web link by shortening it to a small new address. TinyURL was the first resource of this kind, though it's recently been eclipsed by the subtly superior Bit.ly service.
Beyond TinyURL and Bit.ly, the field was already crowded with dozens of other URL shorteners -- is.gd, ow.ly, etc. -- fighting for market share.
What do these innovative and powerful entities have to offer? Will they unseat Bit.ly with sheer audience girth alone?
First, let's look at the perks of each site's new tool, along with a recap of Bit.ly's benefits, including new features just launched yesterday. (What a coincidence!)
Status: Active, but in testing. No official announcement
from Facebook yet.
How it works: Automatically shortens some links sent within Facebook, via Web or mobile device.
- Already works as a replacement for branded fan page URLs, meaning that Facebook.com/LittleDebbie and Fb.me/LittleDebbie take you to the same place. This means a company retains its branding while saving space on a site like Twitter.
- Likely will soon offer customizable links and analytics for Page managers.
- Could become a standardized aspect of how Facebook Connect lets you share information across the Web using only your Facebook login.
Status: So far can only be used from the Google Toolbar
browser plugin or from FeedBurner, Google's popular service for managing RSS
subscriptions. Like Fb.me, you can't just go drop in a Web site and turn it
into a Goo.gl address -- yet.
How it works: Google Toolbar offers a "Share" button, which gives you options of where you want to share the Web site you're currently viewing. When it posts your link into Twitter, Digg or a similar network, the URL will be converted to Goo.gl.
Bonus features: Google is focusing on three areas where it hopes to beat competitors like Bit.ly.
- Security: Google will scan site links for malicious code or suspicious activity, hopefully protecting you from clicking through to a dangerous page.
- Stability: As the Web becomes more and more dependent on URL shorteners, people are going to get more and more upset when these link sites are down, preventing you from clicking through to anything they've shortened. Google is promoting its massive resources as a sort of insurance that Goo.gl links will always work. (Though even Google has had its outages.)
- Speed: Again, Google says its resources will help ensure that the linking process is as fast as possible. It might be a subtle improvement, but these kinds of subtleties can be a deciding factor when you're choosing your default service.
Status: Alive and well since mid-2008.
How it works: I recommend dragging the "Shorten with bit.ly" link into your main browser bookmarks. That will automatically truncate a link to whatever page you're currently viewing. But you can also just copy and paste the link onto the Bit.ly site itself.
- Bit.ly offers simple but fascinating analytics on how many people have clicked through to a certain link. You should consider opening a Bit.ly account, so that your analytics are tracked from any machine, though you can get quite a bit of data without an account.
- Ubiquity: Bit.ly is the default URL shortener for Twitter, which makes it the envy of its field (and the mortal enemy of TinyURL, which it toppled on Twitter in May 2009).
- As of today, Bit.ly has Pro accounts, which (among other things) let businesses create their own branded URL shorteners, such as nyti.ms for links to The New York Times. This is another sign that branding is becoming a key concern in a world where clearly identifiable links are being shortened to jibberish, a service that's great for the customer but frustrating for companies trying to get their name out there.
So where's all this headed? Is there really a lot of money here?
Probably not. The very nature of URL shortening eliminates almost any hope of selling ads for revenue, and pro accounts will always be a tough sell when there are dozens of free competitors out there.
This is a fight for marketshare, a battle to become (or remain) the industry standard. In a war like that, the winner will be the company that's willing to invest the most resources with almost no hope for monetary reward.
Which means six months from now, you'll probably be using Goo.gl when you link to my new blog post called "Whatever happened to Bit.ly?"