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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39 Comments

  1. This is very cool news, thank you so much for sharing... Will go have a play in Analytics now, and thanks also for the really useful bookmarklets. Would be great if bookmarklets were included in the Firefox add on directory!

    Real shame that Twitter search only goes back a few days - SO limiting for everyone - if snapbird.org can do it, why can Twitter themselves?

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  2. This is a good post, I've only recently starting blogging and I'd been trying to understand the t.co traffic in Analytics beyond the fact it was coming from Twitter for a few weeks now. Should be able to get a really comprehensive understanding of Twitter's ultimate marketing in marketing content and, indeed, websites in general.

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  3. *sorry that should say 'ultimate value' not 'ultimate marketing'!

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  4. Winooski

    Not to be dumb, but what if you use a different URL shortener, say, like bit.ly? Will Twitter ignore that and instead route the visitor through t.co instead? (I hope you understand my confusion!)

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  5. Really great post Tom! Awesome development on t.co - not just wrapping links on t.co but passing through the short url!!

    I have spent many hours creating reports, matching campaign codes to tweets, and this change will help sell social benefits.

    Damien

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  6. Tom Critchlow

    Hey Winooski - right now Twitter only wraps URLs over 19 characters with a t.co link so most existing URL shorteners are unaffected. At some point soon however twitter will roll this out for ALL urls at which point bit.ly and goo.gl etc will get wrapped in t.co

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  7. I don't like t.co AT ALL. Just the fact that Twitter is making changes to my tweets at all disturbs me. I'd say the same thing if Facebook removed words from my status and replaced them with other words. I'd say the same thing if YouTube removed 20 seconds of video from every video I upload and replaced it with their own video.

    The problem for me is that URL shorteners can tell users what they're clicking on before you click. If the link in the tweet is "http://youtu.be/xxxxxx" you know what you're getting BEFORE you click. If it's "http://twitpic.com/xxxxx" you know what you're getting BEFORE you click. Now with "t.co", you have no idea what you're getting.

    My client is Hootsuite (desktop web and Android app). I can no longer click the little plus sign to see a twitpic within the client. I can no longer click the little plus sign and see the YouTube video embedded right there in the client.

    The twitter API allows for clients to know the original URLs, and MAYBE as clients catch up to this and figure out how to provide the original functionality, it may get better.

    But for now, I don't like the change at all!

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  8. One thing that I do like about using the t.co shortener for everything is that it'd mean you could stop using third party web analytics tracking like Google Analytics.

    That might seem a small thing, however it'd mean that you'd be accumulating references to your base URL and not the one with the tracking parameters. While they are still going through the t.co wrapper & 301 redirected, is bound to help you longer term with your SEO. Granted you can overcome the URL variations by using a rel="canonical" tag, but like a 301 redirect there is loss as it flows through the rel="canonical" tag.

    Maybe we should all switch to hash based web analytics tracking (which Google Analytics supports), to avoid generating countless URL variations using the traditional query string approach.

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  9. Although I'm sure that the third party apps, e.g. Hootsuite, won't like this. I think it will be really beneficial for webmasters. Moreover, call me a design nerd, but I much prefer the appearance of url-shortened links to ellipses-shortened links.

    On the downside, Scott does have a point about not being able to see where a link will actually take you, but those of us who have been using Twitter for a while have already come to expect this.

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  10. Ian Williams

    Scott - does the URL appear when you mouse-over in Chrome? Regardless, I largely agree. Especially in the instances when organisations have purchased custom shortened URLs.

    I don't like it rolling out to all URLs, including those shortened elsewhere. There have been instances where I have had important links to third-party domains sent out on Twitter, and we had to use bit.ly analytics for some (admittedly crude) performance-analysis. Unless Twitter itself offers built-in analytics, this feature is lost.

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  11. Awesome post.

    I must admit with URL shortening I am normally concerned only with a few things (I am also really guilty at ignoring a lot of the time):


    the service and likely hood your links could go into the ether.
    how they redirect 301, 302 etc.


    Once again you guys have given me something really actionable to think about, which IMHO is what you guys do best.

    I am always curious at how the shorteners are treated by search engines and data sources such as LinkScape and Majestic SEO.

    :-)

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  12. SteveW

    I tried to search for t.co links and I am not getting any returned values. I even tried your above example of 'http://t.com/wzJw3zr'

    Am I missing something?

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    • SteveW

      I just tested a more recent link and it worked fine. Is there a time frame that the default search uses?

  13. Tom Critchlow

    Hey Steve - twitter search only goes back 7 days I think so you need to be careful of that timeframe....

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  14. M-A

    I haven't seen this t.co in action yet. I haven't been paying much attention I guess. If I may ask though Tom, could you further explain why t.co's analytics and usage is better than say bit.ly? I've been using bit.ly to track my links on twitter and never noticed a drawback, except that it would've been nice if twitter offered an option for you to connect your 3rd party 'shortener' account to your twitter account so that links can be systematically shortened by them...

    I also agree with Scott C. that removing the youtube.com or twitpix.com functionality by changing the link is inconvenient. There is potential there though, so I guess it needs more time to grow into its own.

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  15. Wow - this is great information. I can't believe I hadn't read this elsewhere. I hadn't gotten much traffic to my site from Twitter, either, but now I can see the potential. I better start ramping up my tweeting skills!

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  16. Great post here Tom! I think Twitter's done a smart thing here to automatically shorten URLs as they are entered into the update box, limiting the use of the URL shortener to just Twitter users.

    It would be nice if t.co comes up with a way to distinguish which third party tools it is actually coming from, but knowing that it already reduces direct traffic in GA is a plus.

    We'll see what creative solutions they come out with next for this product. I hope they can somehow open it up to more than 7 days. Or maybe GA just needs to capture extra data from each URL clicked, like maybe the page title of the link? Hmmm...

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  17. I'm with scott in that it makes it more difficult to know where you are being directed to with the link. If the link in the tweet is “http://youtu.be/xxxxxx” you know what you’re getting BEFORE you click. I don't really want to be lucky dipping for links all over the place.

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  18. Nice information !

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  19. I don't really understand why is it anyhow game changing? We all were suppose to tag links in order to properly track the user journey and t.co is not going to change that anyhow. How can you effectively analyse hundreds of links like this - "wzJw3zr"? Moreover, each time somebody new will post the same link t.co will generate another link so you will have dozens of different unrecognisable links in your analytics which are actually generating traffic from the same source to the same content.

    With any historical analysis it's even worse. With GA tagging I simply create an advance segment including any twitter campaign during any period of time. With t.co you would need to dig down the analytitcs and manually click on every link in order to find the campaigns you are interested in.

    T.co is just another "game changing" twitter feature trying to solve the problems which do not exist but clearly ignoring major flaws (already mentioned only 7 days search is one of them )

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  20. You're right. Quite gamechanging. I was wondering what t.co was doing in my Google analytics and why and how it was able to drive a noticeable amount of traffic to my site. This certainly explains why.

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  21. This is definitely a good news considering the fact that most number of shortened URLs are used in twitter service. Even Google has its own url shortening service and t.co should target to decrease the spam url density.

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  22. Dont' know if it's game changing but this is definitely a plus from an analytics stand-point and big businesses will definitely love that aspect.

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  23. Matt

    Once they roll this out for all URLs, will it also work on retweeted t.co links? So if I post something that gets RTed a million times will I be able to see which individual tweet got the most traffic? Or will the Twitter code recognize its own URL and just leave it alone?

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  24. Do you think the game changing aspect maybe a twitter search for relative content in the future? Or something like a most popular section? Just trying to work out why they'd bother with so many other short url services out there.

    I guess if they can say to companies "here's how valuable twitter is to your company, we want this much money" then it's truly game changing, but I don't see them trying that without killing off twitter. Just trying to think of the logic behind it all.

    regards
    Gav.

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  25. marc

    When I read the title of this post on your newsletter "Twitter's t.co link shortening service is game changing" I immediately interpreted it from a coding perspective rather than SEO metrics.
    My websites are full of internal links directing to other pages within the same website and a couple of social media related external links. I'm wondering if each of these links was shortened using t.co(or evenbit.ly for that matter) would that increase the overall upload speed of my page? Would it even work? Could Google even make sense of it? or are these shortened URLS shortlived? Any ideas?
    I'm probably a bit off the SEO subject but given the vogue for shortening URLS would'nt it be great if we could just loose the 11 keystrokes of http://www.?

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  26. Is there a way of customizing the links like that offered by bit.ly? This would help to take the guess work of what you are clicking.

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  27. I'm going to have to test this out. At the moment it just sounds like the same functionality that I get from Tweetdeck where it automatically wraps the link in a bit.ly for me. The fact that it goes through Twitter servers is neither here nor there to me because at the end of the day I only shorten my URL's for Twitter. The more I think about this the less favourable it seems, because bit.ly will track for more than 7 days (although I see little value in this - I mean, how many tweets will be around after this time). Whether I dig in bit.ly or t.co makes no difference whatsoever to me. I guess that unless you have a huge site and massive traffic then this change in the number of direct visits to your site will seem like a lot of fuss about nothing, and maybe that argument can be bore out by Twitter's failure to provide a more informative page for t.co

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  28. Thank you!! This is awesome!

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  29. hopefully Twitter will finally get the respect it deserves! just today I got an @ reply that tweeting is wasting time....

    its a way to quickly broadcast your message to the world....and connect with people

    I'm meeting new people every day off twitter and its so powerful - now webmasters will have to shutup and realize the traffic they are getting

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  30. Now that Twitter is redirecting all other shortened URLs through t.co (I am seeing goo.gl and bit.ly) I feel it isn't worth using the other shorteners when in Twitter any more, since you get the character space given to you when you leverage the full URL, and most importantly - only one redirect occurs versus bit.ly to t.co and then to destination URL.

    agree?

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  31. At first I was a bit worried about this from an SEO point of view because to change the referer to a t.co url, twitter has to return a 200 HTTP code and use an html refresh or javascript redirect. This would have been an seo disaster.

    Luckely, after going through the twitter dev docs I found this: https://dev.twitter.com/docs/tco-url-wrapper/tco-redirection-behavior

    Turns out Twitter is using different types of redirect based on the type of referrer and the type of browser.

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  32. I wish there is a plan to let developers know the origin of each t.co link... Original author (@user) and why not permalink to the original tweet

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  33. Nice write up and along the lines of others I've read. I get a lot of direct traffic and never thought they might be from Twitter. Be interesting to take a look at their new toys that go along with this new URL tag.

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  34. Thanks! I just revamped the way I post to Twitter so that I can begin checking how much of our traffic comes from our tweets. Really appreciate the info!

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  35. Hi Tom, having trouble figuring out how to use the bookmarklet - how do I drag and drop what is effectovely a link on the page? Would love some step by step instructions if it isn't too much trouble. Thanks!

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  36. This is great.

    While analyzing refferal traffic, i was keen looking through twitter , but unable to find it out. Really that's been beneficial to use different applications and to optimize tweets before posting.

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  37. Hi Tom,

    Nice insight on this change with Twitter. I did wonder what the t.co was all about at first and once I figured it, it made sense - but your spin on things is very interesting.

    Had trouble with the bookmarklet on Mac however? Drag and drop not working.

    Thanks for posting.

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  38. Hi Tom,

    Great post. I have not seen this in my all websites analytic yet. May be this is because i do not have much followers as you have. ;-)

    Thanks

    Saif

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