Twitter’s t.co link shortening service is game changing - here’s why

Update 10/10/11: Today Twitter announced that now ALL links regardless of length will be wrapped in the t.co URL shortener. This feels like the final step before rolling out Twitter analytics to all.

Yesterday the Distilled site received fewer direct visits than any Wednesday out of the last 6 months. What caused this dramatic drop in direct traffic? Did we screw something up? Was our site down or unavailable?

None of these things happened. What happened was Twitter rolled out their new t.co URL shortener. When I first heard that Twitter was doing this I must admit I didn't really see what the big deal was and largely ignored the news. But let's take a quick look at our analytics for the past month:

See how t.co is showing up as one of our referrers? What this effectively does is provide Twitter as a referral source. Which is huge. This is game changing!

I highly recommend that everyone reads the help page about t.co because Twitter are planning some interesting things such as:

Our link service will also be used to measure information like how many times a link has been clicked. This information will eventually become an important quality signal for our resonance algorithm, which determines how relevant and interesting each Tweet is when compared to similar Tweets.

Right now the t.co wrapper only appears for URLs longer than 20 characters so there are still some links not being wrapped in t.co but according to this dev blog post it will roll out eventually for all URLs.

Tracking Twitter Links in Analytics

Ok, let me recap - up until now we've had lousy tracking for Twitter traffic. The reason for this is that everyone lives in one of two places; either they use the web-client and are using http://twitter.com as their URL, or they use a desktop/mobile client (e.g. Tweetdeck/Hootsuite etc) that lives outside of the browser.

In the scenario where someone is using the web client your referral will show up as http://twitter.com as we can see here for referrals from the Twitter domain (with a handful of visits from an individual profile page):

In the scenario where someone is using a desktop/mobile Twitter client there will be no referral to the visit and your traffic will show up as direct.

Now, however - all links shared on Twitter get wrapped in a t.co URL and crucially this redirect passes a referrer of the t.co URL. So from the last few days here's the breakdown of our analytics for t.co URLs:

I encourage you to try this our yourself - I wrote about some SEO bookmarklets on SEOmoz the other day and one of those is a bookmarklet to check referrer which is really handy for playing around with this stuff.

Why This is Game Changing

This is a genius move from Twitter. No longer do the masses have to rely on some wonky tracking system or matching bit.ly clicks to their analytics but instead you'll start to see the value and impact of Twitter traffic directly within your stats. This is going to help justify the value of Twitter engagement for a whole lot of brands and business owners who previously wouldn't have realised just how much traffic Twitter was sending.

One thing I especially like about this change is that you can now actually drill down and see the impact of individual tweets and check what happened in your analytics. For example let's check what the top t.co referral was for distilled:

We can then go look this URL up in Twitter search like this:

So this is huge because now anyone can see the direct value of Twitter traffic in their analytics. As marketers we can report more easily on the impact of Twitter traffic without tagging URLs or using a 3rd party service.

Quickly lookup your t.co referrers with my bookmarklet

It's still a slightly slow process to go and lookup these URLs via search so I made a bookmarklet that you can use to lookup your t.co links and open up the Twitter search page automatically. The bookmarklet works on both a single t.co page like this:

And on a list of referring t.co links like this:

Grab the bookmarklet here (drag and drop to your bookmarks bar):

t.co lookup bookmarklet

Note: Twitter search only goes back 7 days so only run this for fresh t.co URLs - anything further back won't show anything in Twitter search :(

Warning: Don't use this when you have more than 10 t.co URLs showing, otherwise it will try and open them all up and crash your browser :)

Twitter Should Make More Use of http://t.co

One final closing statement, if you go to t.co to try and understand what this is all about you get this:

What Twitter should really do is make this page all about Twitter tracking and explain to webmasters that they're seeing this referral because they've been sent traffic from Twitter. It would drive education and help out less knowledgeable folks who see t.co in their referrals without knowing what it is.

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