How to Create a Branded Short Link
Have you ever noticed that certain brands and publishers seem to have their own branded short link? When they share shortened links, instead of goo.gl or bit.ly, it's dustn.ws or thesmh.co. By using their own custom branded short link, they reinforce their brand awareness, as well as ensure that they're taking full advantage of all the benefits shortened links offer.
What's a Shortened Link?
Shortened URLS, or Short Links, are critical to successful use of Twitter (and other areas that we'll explore in a moment) since tweets are limited to 140 characters, including the link. So when you want to tweet out a link to your latest blog post, it's ideal to have that link be as short as possible in order to leave room for the most important part of your tweet, the text!
But the problem is, most of our blog post links look something like this: http://www.thesocialmediahat.com/blog/content-marketing-may-be-most-useless-impractical-non-measureable-term-marketing-02072014
That's 127 characters right there! All I would have room to say is, "Click Here!" and that's not a very compelling message.
So services began to develop, including Twitter's t.co and others, allowing users to have a random, shortened link created that would still take visitors to the proper address, like a forward, yet consume far fewer characters. That means http://www.thesocialmediahat.com/blog/content-marketing-may-be-most-useless-impractical-non-measureable-term-marketing-02072014 now looks like this: http://thesmh.co/1gXDay6 - note that the new link is only 17 characters, and I've also introduced you to my own custom, branded short domain: thesmh.co (short for The Social Media Hat). Now, whenever I want to, I can take one of my long URLs and shorten it to something more easily tweeted and shared.
How to use your own domain to create branded, shortened URLs like this: http://t.co/Jc0PTxvYnp (Time: 15 min. / Cost: <$15)— Mike Allton (@mike_allton) July 10, 2014
But there's more to it than that.
Whenever you use a link shortening service, like bit.ly, the new shortened link comes with tracking information. Because it's acting as a middle man — a step between the visitor who clicked the link and your actual URL — the service is able to track those clicks and corresponding information. So using a shortened link gives you valuable metrics and information.
For instance, Bit.ly acts as a kind of social bookmarking service. Every URL that passed through Bit.ly is assigned one bit.ly address and anyone else who wants to shorten that original URL will end up using the exact same Bit.ly link. You can then view metrics for that link and see not just your own shares, but others as well.
Hootsuite has a built-in link shortening service with several short domains to choose from (i.e. ow.li), as does Buffer. Google has a shortened link service using goo.gl but I prefer to use Bit.ly.
Also, as Ben Fisher reminded me, do note that shortened links still pass social signals like +1's.
Now that you know what short links are for and how to use them, let's talk about how you can get a custom, branded shortened domain for links like mine.
Select Your Custom Domain for Short Links
Before you can start using your branded domain with a service like Bit.ly, you need to find and buy that domain. And I wish I could tell you this is the easy part, because technically there's not much to do. But the fact is, this will likely be the hardest part of this process for you. No one likes domain name shopping. Unless you're unreasonably lucky, it's a process that can take hours, sometimes days, and be filled with frustration.
That said, here are a few pieces of advice for you:
First, give some thought to what you might use before you even start searching. What word, words or letters might make for a meaningful domain for you? Clearly it will need to be shorter than your current domain, yet still meaningful. I suggest that you put some forethought into your search because, once you begin searching, I would encourage you to settle on a domain and purchase it within 48 hours. Other people can see what domains are being researched on certain services and may buy domain names that look interesting.
Once you start searching, if possible, use the same registrar service as your other domains so that you keep your domains together. Too often, I've worked with clients who own several domains, all with different services, and they struggle to find or remember requisite access information for all of these services. Personally, I use GoDaddy for domain name management because they allow me to do everything one might need to do with a domain, and it's easy to manage dozens of domains.
As you begin to search, particularly if you use a tool like GoDaddy, you will be presented with options based on your initial search, which is a key benefit. The registrar should offer you suggested extensions that might be made into part of the overall domain name.
One tool that I found that was particularly helpful in my own search was https://domai.nr/ - this tool will let you put in whatever word you want, then suggest a variety of domains using available extensions. Since you're buying a domain designed to help you create shorter links than before, I recommend focusing on two-character extensions, like .co or .us, and a domain name that's just 4 - 6 characters in length. My own, thesmh.co, was as long as I wanted to go, but was the most meaningful of all available options.
Once you settle on a domain, purchase it, and then get ready to make one quick change to that domain's settings.
Set Up Bit.ly To Use Custom Link Shortening
In order to allow Bit.ly to use and manage your new domain name for shortened links, you'll need to "point" your new domain to Bit.ly.
Log into your Bit.ly account (or create a new one if you don't already have one) and go to Settings, then Advanced.
Here, you can tell Bit.ly that you have a custom domain you want to use. Type in the new domain URL, and then note the instructions on forwarding the domain. Bit.ly will ask you to create an A Record within your new domain's settings, and point that record to Bit.ly's IP address.
Head back over to your domain name registrar and go to the DNS settings for that domain. Now, every registrar is a little different, but if you registered with GoDaddy, you can click on DNS and you will see an A Record in place that you can simply edit and replace the IP Address.
Depending on your registrar, this may take as long as 48 hours to go through.
Once the change is Live, head back over to Bit.ly and click the button within the Branded Short Domain Settings to verify the domain. Green means go!
Once you've set up and verified your domain, there are two other settings you'll want to adjust.
First, go back into the Advanced Settings and make sure that your new short domain forwards to your full domain. You want to make sure that thesmh.co just typed in by itself would take someone to thesocialmediahat.com.
Second, set up tracking for your full domain to ensure that you're able to view metrics for all shares of links from your site.
Set Up Other Services
Once you have Bitly set up to use your new branded shortened link, you can further ensure your brand recognition by connecting some of your other services.
Buffer is the first and easiest service you should configure, if you're a Buffer user. Log in and click on the gear icon in the upper right to access Settings. Click on Link Shortening. You have probably been using Buffer's default service, buff.ly. You'll also bit.ly and j.mp as options, with a button to Connect Bit.ly below. Click that button and authorize Buffer to access your Bit.ly account. Once approved, you will see you new custom domain at the top of the list, and already selected.
And that's all you have to do. Now, all of your links shared via Buffer will use your new branded domain, yet still retain complete tracking information.
To add a custom domain link shortener to Hootsuite, you will need to upgrade your account and add the capability, and unfortunately it's not free. It costs $49.99 per month. And unfortunately, Hootsuite also assumes full control over the domain (you have to point your A Record to Hootsuite), which means it cannot be used in conjunction with Bit.ly and other services. If Hootsuite decides to change this policy and feature, I'll update you accordingly.
If you're using SocialOomph, like I am, to maintain consistent Twitter activity, you've likely already connected your Bit.ly account. If not, just log into your SocialOomph account and make sure to connect Bit.ly. As long as you have Bit.ly connected, any new links that you create will automatically use your new branded domain for shortened links.
Links that you've previously shortened will remain unaffected. It will only be links that you create going forward. If you have a reservoir queue of links set up and you want to share your new branded domain, you will need to recreate those updates with new links.
If you're using Shareaholic, like I am, to provide social sharing buttons and services on your site, you can set those up to use your new custom URL instead of one of the other available services. Log into your Shareaholic account, go to Settings then Site Tools then Settings and then Sharing. Change your URL Shortener to Bit.ly and enter your Bit.ly username and API code (just follow the link to get that info from Bit.ly). Once you've saved, all of your future shares from your site, and that of your followers, will use your new branded short link.
There are undoubtedly other services that can use and integrate your Bit.ly custom shortened link -- these are just the services I happen to use and be familiar with. If you're using a different service that you'd like to recommend, please mention it in the comments below!
When To Use Shortened Links
Certainly, if you're sharing a link using a service like Buffer, that link is going to be shortened, and now it will use your brand new custom domain. But one of the techniques that my buddy Dustin W. Stout uses all the time that really impresses me is when he's sharing other people's links (example). He'll see an article or piece of news he wants to share, compose a post on Google+ talking about it, and use his own branded short link to that article, sometimes even adding a great image. Of course this makes for a great Google+ post, but why use his own link?
Since the article isn't Dustin's, he won't be able to see how much traffic goes to the article from Google+, and therefore how effective his share was. By using his own custom link, he can see metrics on how that link performs over time. Social signals like +1's and Comments are good indicators too, but they're not always the best. Typically, many people will be interested in a link and click on it, yet take no action at all on the social share. If you want to gauge how effective your overall social media strategy is — whether your activity is truly resonating with your audience — you need to be tracking everything you can.
So shortened links are for way more than just conserving Tweet characters. Use them on all of your social shares to track interest in those specific shares, and consider using different shortened links for different platforms as well.
And take advantage of that tracking ability for other uses as well. You can email people shortened links and get tracking data. If you have a guest blog or a chance to use a link on someone else's platform, use a shortened link so that you can easily see the effectiveness of that link (you can get this kind of referral data from Google Analytics as well, but it's a lot easier to find the link in Bit.ly and see activity over time).
How to Customize Your Shortened Links
Now that you're using Bit.ly for all your shortened links, you can take advantage of Bit.ly's customization feature and create even more meaningful links. Bit.ly will use your new domain and provide a random set of characters to represent that specific URL, but you can edit those to be something that your audience will more easily understand and remember.
To get started, log into your Bit.ly account again and paste your long URL into the shorten URL field at the top of every page. A customization window will pop up allowing you to enter whatever you want.
For instance, I wanted to shorten http://www.thesocialmediahat.com/active-users and have a custom short URL for it. When I put it into Bit.ly, the default shortened link is http://thesmh.co/1k829G9 but I wanted to use http://thesmh.co/smactive as that's more memorable. It looks like this:
Now you can create custom short links whenever you need to to help not only improve your brand recognition, but also your link usability as well.
By Mike Allton, Content Marketing Practitioner
Mike is a Content Marketing Practitioner, Blogger and Author in St. Louis, and the Chief Marketing Officer at SiteSell. He has been working with websites and the Internet since the early '90's, and is active on all of the major social networks. Mike teaches a holistic approach to content marketing that leverages blog content, social media and SEO to drive traffic, generate leads, and convert those leads into sales.
Mike is the author of, "The Unofficial Book On HootSuite: The #1 Tool for Social Media Management", "The Ultimate Guide to the Perfect LinkedIn Profile.", and "Blog Promotionology, The Art & Science of Blog Promotion."