Monday, November 19, 2007

TinyURL Outage Illustrates the Service's Risks

The link shortening and redirection service TinyURL went down apparently for hours last night, rendering countless links broken across the web. Complaints have been particularly loud on Twitter, where long links are automatically turned to TinyURLs and complaining is easy to do, but the service is widely used in emails and web pages as well. The site claims to service 1.6 billion hits each month.

There are many free public alternatives to TinyURL, some with better ancillary features (see for just one example). The name TinyURL is very literal and memorable though. I use SNURL more often, myself.

It's not good when so much of the web runs through a single service. For some, politics could be a consideration as well as technical considerations. The man behind TinyURL, Keven Gilbertson, uses his hugely popular website to promote US presidential candidate Ron Paul, which I personally find somewhat distasteful, and encourages people to use TinyURL to obscure affiliate links on their webpages - which strikes me as extremely distasteful. Presumably a Paul supporter would want our redirects to run wild and free too, unbeholden to a centralized service provider capable of holding us under its thumb (I joke, but really.)

URL shorteners are important because they make long links much easier to communicate. The print world could learn a thing or two from these services; InfoWorld magazine, for example, used to to publish very short redirects through for all links it discussed. That's great for efficiency and brand recognition and makes me wonder whether all of us ought to have our own private TinyURL service.

If there was some sort of distributed standard or tool that could be good as well. The Online Computer Library Center (OCLC) has run (Persistent Uniform Resource Locator) since the 1990's but user experience is something only a librarian would put up with. A public institution solving this problem gracefully might be as realistic it would have been for the Library of Congress to have acquired (my fantasy) instead of Yahoo!

The moral of the story, though, is that it isn't supposed to work this way. There ought not be one single point of failure that can so easily break such a big part of the web.

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