Tiny urls: Taking WWW towards a single point of failure

Tinyurl, urltea and several other url reducers provide an excellent service where they reduce the sometimes very long urls to a fraction of their original size. The short version of the URL provides relief to people on the phone (can’t really think of anything else which could benefit from the service). Thanks to the growth of twitter, the url abbreviating services have gained a lot of popularity recently, so much so that people have started replacing regular URLs on the web (eg. Look at the comment in this post). Charlene Li even considered having the tiny URLs in her book. David Pogue carries the ecstatic side of finding a new service without evaluating the potential pitfalls.

I don’t understand why people want to mask the URL for the normal WWW. A lot of people click the URL after doing a hover and figuring out the actual target.

5 minutes ago, I clicked on a urltea link and I got a 503 HTTP Error:

A 503. Service is not available from urltea. Tinyurl claims to have abbreviated a billion urls. Imagine the impact of such a downtime.

The URL abbreviation services pose the following problems:

1. Single point of failure for billions of web urls. This totally defeats the distributed architecture of WWW.
2. Masked urls could be prone to deception by spammers and XSS exploiters. Quoting Wired Blog, “your audience has no clue where it will lead — could be a porn link, could be a virus laden site from Russia.”
3. A lot of browser security features work on the domain name and it’s associated attributes stored locally. A different url masks the true domain.
4. It leads to even more problems in the text mining community — where a single domain pollutes the corpus of links, while hiding the actual target. Any link analyzer has to first resolve the actual target of the tiny url by performing an HTTP HEAD request.
5. What if tinyurl gets bought by a get-rich-quick advertising company and they start sending a pop-up along with the actual URL. That would be an idea for someone to make a lot of money from billions of tiny urls!

The value provided by these services for mobile is great — it’s a big problem when the tiny urls start popping up on everybody’s webpages! I’m not alone to think there is something wrong with the service in the WWW context. Here’s Tom and here’s Scott Rosenberg of Salon.

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