Why URL Shorteners Matter

Tom commented on a previous post about inVentiv Health's new URL shortener that all of this discussion is moot because we're all being forced to adopt Twitter's shortener anyway, and Marco followed up with some additional clarifications.

Both cite Twitter's support pages about this topic here and here.

So, there's an important correction to the previous post, and there's also a question about why I obsess on character counts and shorteners in general.

First, the correction.

I thought Twitter's 22-character limit on a URL was a maximum, not a minimum. It turns out it's both. No matter how short (or long) a URL is, when it is included in a Tweet, Twitter allocates 22 characters for the link and uses its t.co shortener service to send the user on his/her way to the destination URL.

Importantly, that limitation is different from what displays. A message that is too long will not necessarily display in its entirety, but the URL will count toward only 22 characters of your 140 character total.

Consequently, no URL shortener can offer character savings, and my claim that inVentiv Health was offering a real (though small) savings in the character count was wrong.

However, URL shorteners still matter.

To understand why, you have to first recognize that URL shorteners are just a special case of using URL redirects. URL redirects are simply ways having a user end up a different URL destination than what they click on (or enter into their browser's address bar).

There are many reasons why people make use of redirects. First, websites are constantly evolving and changing. When such changes happen, there's a need to send people using old URLs someplace, and redirects are an option instead of setting up error pages or making people find their way manually to their destination.

Second, some destination URLs are unwieldy. People can find long URLs difficult to read, comprehend, and type. By contrast, a redirect can be much shorter and easier to use.

Third, (and this one matters most to pharmaceutical marketers) there need not be any connection between the information or words provided in the redirecting URL and the eventual destination URL. That matters to pharmaceutical marketers because going back many years, FDA has made clear that usage of a product name in a URL counts as a mention of the product name. And that matters to pharmaceutical marketers because use of a brand name automatically brings with it certain requirements, such as the inclusion of the generic name, whereas a URL redirect enables you to avoid that product mention.

URL shorteners are just one special case of these redirects that provide the benefits of being easier to type. Because URL shorteners work by having an extremely brief root URL while appending a random string of characters to the end, they are not typically easier to read or comprehend.

There has been only one enforcement action from FDA's OPDP for the use of a URL redirect that I am aware of.

FDA made clear that the issue with the ad subject to the enforcement was that the other parts of the ad so clearly identified the product that the mere omission of the product name was not itself sufficient to claim that the ad was not a product promotion. So, one issue when using a redirect (whether shortening or not) is that you cannot simply assume that because the brand name has been removed from the URL that you have thereby prevented your ad from being a product promotion.

If, for example, your company makes only one product in a specific therapeutic category and is well known for doing so, then putting together a message that mentions your company name and the category is likely to be problematic.

Bringing all of this back to inVentiv Health's new shortener, using such a service will not save you characters on Twitter (though of course each platform is unique, and it might offer such a savings on other platforms).

It does, however, provide the advantage of avoiding the mention of a product in the URL that a user sees while still clearly communicating to the user that he or she is going to a webpage for a prescription product that communicates risk information. And these benefits will, to my mind, be more significant if the service becomes standard throughout the industry instead of each company developing their own shortener.

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