When we talk about Short URL services, a “Custom URL” is the option to specify part of the shortened URL. Most often this is the latter part of the URL, but it is possible to set up a short URL service1 to use subdomains, or spanning multiple domains.
WordPress users may recognize this as a “slug“. In the context of short URLs, it has effectively the same meaning.
Why does it matter?
The most significant gain is usability. Readers are better able to understand where a link will take them, leading to increased click quality for that link. It may also seem less blind,2 even though it is no less revealing about the exact destination URL.
As an example, consider the following case where a short link points to a hypothetical announcement where Google buys Microsoft:
Which one will receive more clicks?
The answer involves more than the URL itself, including some of the following:
- Where and how we present the URL.
- Trust with the poster.
- Relevance to the reader.
Assuming everything else is equal, the “pretty” URL would likely attract more clicks.3
When should I avoid using a Custom URL?
There are cases where a custom URL is not ideal. They are often longer, which is impractical under tight space constraints. Though I would argue that a more descriptive URL recovers anything you give up due to reduced introductory text.
It may also be preferred to avoid Custom URLs with intentionally blind links. Affiliate links are a common example of this (ethical issues with this aside). Consider the following:
Of those, two suggest a connection between the person providing the link, and the destination.4 This may affect how a prospect perceives the link,5 and in cases like this, avoiding a custom URL is beneficial.6
If a user would not click a link knowing what it is, tricking them into clicking it is dishonest, and deservedly damages trust. If you feel differently, please share your opinion in a comment.
- There’s even a rumor going around that it is fun to build your own short URL service. [↩]
- I refer to a link as “blind” if it is not obvious where it leads without clicking on it. [↩]
- I am speculating on this point. Feel free to disagree in the comments. [↩]
- Admittedly, this is not clear to everyone. [↩]
- Regardless of your stance in the “paid link disclosure” debate, there are people out there who feel that anyone making money at this is untrustworthy. [↩]
- This applies more to links provided off-site. If presenting the link on your site, a custom URL is unlikely to negatively affect trust. [↩]