I noticed a few links on Twitter using bit.ly for url shortening rather than the old standby tinyurl and was intrigued. RWW raved about the service as well, mainly because it makes an attempt to categorize links using semantic algorithms. I took a look and have to admit that one other feature of bit.ly stands out – the ability to define your own link code. In one sense this is kind of a bad thing, because it is Yet Another Namespace that everyone with a brand or trademark would do well to rush to grab (assuming the service does take off, which I am still a bit skeptical about). For example, bit.ly/blog and bit.ly/islam are now taken, pointing to various blogs of mine as an experiment (I note with satisfaction that the Obama campaign already is on top of this and has grabbed bit.ly/obama).
At RWW, Marshall says that bit.ly’s semantic classification of links makes it the tool of the future:
Bit.ly is analyzing all of the pages that its users create shortcuts to using the Open Calais semantic analysis API from Reuters! Calais is something we’ve written about extensively here. Bit.ly will use Calais to determine the general category and specific subjects of all the pages its users create shortcuts to. That information will be freely available to the developer community using XML and JSON APIs as well.
I can’t share in Marshall’s enthusiasm however because I don’t see the semantic categorization as innately useful. I’ve blogged before about why folksonomies are the key to web 3.0, and all bit.ly is doing is generating a taxonomy for its links, not levarging the power of folksonomy. In a sense, by letting users define their own link code, bit.ly is sitting on top of an intrinsic mechanism for folksonomy already, by simply treating the codes that users assign to their links as folksonomic tags. I hope that they recognize the value of those custom codes, and not get too enamoured of and distracted by the magic word “semantic”.
Whether bit.ly gains traction is of course not going to be driven by fringe features such as geotagging and semantics (ie, metadata), but rather by how easy it is to integrate teh service into other tools that users actually, well, use. TinyURL rode the Twitter wave to prominence, since it is the default url-shortener service (automatically invoked when you tweet, with no user intervention required). Similar services like is.gd, which have a much simpler API and are theoretically more robust in their namespaces, still haven’t broken into the market much yet, even though they also have teh requisite bookmarklets and firefox extensions already. If bit.ly wants to make inroads it needs to become the default URL service for a hot web app like Friendfeed, or even contract with twitter itself to become a user-specified alternative to tinyurl. I think that it would make sense to try for partnership with friendfeed, actually, because then the link history can be integrated into the user’s profile and browsed like any other service. If bit.ly doesn’t support RSS feeds of its user’s linkages, they should.)
Overall, there are plenty of services out there but the thing to remember is that none shoudl be thought of as genuinely archival. A shortened URL should be a tool of convenience, but don’t expect that link to work forever. In one sense its better for there to be many such services rather than one to rule them all, which is why I am glad to see another competitor to TinyURL emerge. The rest is just icing on the cake (and hopefully a spur towards further innovation).