URL Shorteners

So I’ve been annoyed by the increasing use of URL shorteners. What is a URL shortener you ask? Well, it’s a service, provided by an owner of a short domain name, that provides URL redirection—providing a short URL you can use with services like Twitter or Facebook, but originally conceived for handling URLs in emails to avoid problems with copying and pasting when the URL wraps onto the next line. When you follow a short URL, your browser contacts the owner’s web server, and is given a 301 or 302 error code in an HTTP response that tells the browser where to locate the correct content, which it then does in succession. Popular services include tinyurl, bit.ly, goog.le, and t.co.

So why am I annoyed by it? Mainly because I cannot see where the link is going to end up. I don’t like clicking on links I get from friends unless I know what website I’m going to end up on. This is primarily due to concerns over the potential that the link might take me to a malicious site, or a site I might find offensive. But a number of friends post links that I think I might find interesting–yet I never follow them because they are shortened URLs.

A secondary concern is the tracking done by the URL shortening company. It allows a third party company to track all references to a destination site through the posted URL, which to me seems like a loss of privacy.

Granted – for services like Twitter, which have a small upper-bound on the message size, something like this is needed—albeit only because of the somewhat arbitrary limits placed on message sizes. So what solution might I offer? For my primary concern (knowing where you’re headed before you visit the website), it might be good if browsers recognized the URLs for short URL providers, and used a HEAD request to determine the actual destination to present to users. Alternately, a browser might include a new feature for requesting a HEAD request for a link instead of a standard GET request. The HEAD request, rather than opening the URL, just asks the server for the headers the website would contain, and could be presented to the user so they know what is healthy and normal.

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