Twitter—the wildly popular “micro-blogging” service—is making a giant impact on the internet, and joining the ranks of internet giants by doing so. If you’ve watched any cable news program in the last year, you’re probably already familiar with how it is helping to cure us all of the reckless habit of using sentences longer than 140 characters—this one is 163! (E-Gasp.) But, the lesser-known—and possibly more important—impact is how Twitter is helping to improve the traffic tracking tools online.

The Back Story

Twitter is a brilliant little shoehorn. Its 140 character limit was originally built into the system so that the service would play nicely when ‘tweets’ were sent to mobile phones as text messages—which, at the time, already had a 140 character limit. The mobile phone text message character restriction is now disappearing rather quickly as new phone platforms, which are not limited by small screens and tiny data transfer—like the iPhone and Droid, make their way into texters hands.

But Twitter will keep the 140 character limit even though the original reason for it is disappearing. The restriction has made Twitter the media darling, and it has been the cornerstone for the new standard of quick, straight-forward, and safely-ignorable communication—an often-useful white noise in the background of your internet life.

Though, while the 140 character limit hasn’t budged, the way people use Twitter certainly has. The majority of tweets are no longer about personal hygene habits:

I’m brushing my teeth with baking soda for the first time. Holy pantload that’s gross!

Rather tweets have morphed into, most often, some form of recommendation:

Read a great blog post about using baking soda as tooth paste! I might try it! http://wow-bakingsoda.com/2010/10/03/toothpaste

As you can see in that last example, the URL for the link recommendation requires 47 of the allowed 140 characters. And, in some cases, URLs can be as long as—or longer than—140 characters in themselves. And so, to help Tweeters crunch down the length of the URLs they were recommending, link shortening services began popping up around the ‘net: is.gd, bit.ly, and tinyurl.com were a few of the first. At first, these services were simply redirection scripts parked behind short web addresses. (Here’s one I built with a friend as an experiment while enjoying(!) anchovy pizza: http://lnkr.us.) But soon these young new services began to feel the competition of their fellow link-shortening brethren. Each service began tacking on new features in the hopes of luring more folks their way—because as we all know, money follows traffic.

The Paradigm Shift

Tools like Google Analytics and Mint have been helping web site owners understand the traffic coming to, dancing around, and leaving their sites for years. These are great services pumping out loads of useful information, and web site owners should take advantage of them. They do, however, have one inherent limitation: they can only see, and report on, traffic that touches the web site being tracked.

These new link-shortening services introduced something new. By inserting themselves into the “recommender –> audience” relationship, they allowed—for the first time since links started flying around the internet—the masses to track activity on links beyond their own web sites.

This is valuable.

The Internet’s Crowds

The rise of social media platforms gave people a place to “hangout” online. Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Scribd and all the rest have done a great job developing platforms that people find enjoyable, useful, and familiar. People are spending incredible amounts of time on these sites, which, try as you might, you will never own. Therefore, you will never get to track their data.

As business owners learn the ins-and-outs of marketing their wares online, they will discover the need to go to where the people are congregating. Businesses large and small are (and should be) making the move to social media platforms by setting up accounts, pages, feeds, etc. Before the advent of these link-shortening services with tracking capabilities is was often impossible to accurately gauge whether or not promotional campaigns on these external sites was worth the effort.

The Old Way

Let’s say, for example, you’re a book author with a popular Facebook page. You’ve got 4,000 fans. Great. Does that matter? Do they buy books? If you’re fortunate enough to have a web site set up that sells your book directly, then tracking direct sales from your Facebook page is easy. Google Analytics will tell you how many folks came from your Facebook page and purchased a book on your site.

Now, let’s say you don’t have an e-commerce site set up for whatever reason. So, you instead direct people to buy the book from your shiny, new Amazon.com listing. You post a quick excerpt from your brilliant foreword to your Facebook page, and then insert the Amazon.com link at the bottom asking people to follow it to find more.

Unfortunately, because the link you’ve just placed on your Facebook page is directing people right from Facebook.com to Amazon.com, Google Analytics or any other site traffic tracking tool will never know if the link has been followed. Only Facebook and Amazon will know—and they do know.

The New Way

By using one of these link shortening/tracking services, you are inserting a third party into the Facebook.com to Amazon.com link. The new, shortened link you’ve placed at the end of your shining foreword excerpt now directs people (invisibly) through another service—one to which you’ve got access. The process now goes:

  1. Facebook.com (where the link is placed)
  2. bit.ly (where the link is tracked)
  3. Amazon.com (where the link directs the visitor)

Here are some examples. For demostation purposes, pretend these links are placed on Facebook where I can’t track them with Google Analytics—instead of on my blog, where I can.

Naked examples—both links redirect visitors to the same page:

  1. Naked Full (untrackable) Link: http://www.amazon.com/Start-Your-Blogging-Business-Startup/dp/1599180472/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1268671697&sr=8-1
  2. Naked Shortened (trackable) Link: http://bit.ly/bxJAJn

Some embedded examples—the URLs (to both full and shortened links) are hidden here in the HTML, so the user will never know the difference:

  1. Embedded Full (untrackable) Link: Check out this video!
  2. Embedded Shortened (trackable) Link: Check out this video!

Why It Matters

Tracking your social media efforts is now easier and you can compare your effort to results. Let’s say in the example above that it took you 20 minutes to excerpt your foreword and post it to Facebook. And, a week later, you log into your bit.ly account and see that the link sent 20 people right to your Amazon page. That’s one person per minute of promotional effort over the course of a week. That’s not bad.

The next week you decide, instead of an excerpt, to post a 3 minute video documenting one of the processes you explain in the book. The video takes you roughly 60 minutes to set up, shoot, edit, and post. A week later, you see on bit.ly that the link you’ve placed after the video sent 120 people to the Amazon page. That’s two people per minute spent per week. You’ve just learned that videos are twice as effective with your audience! More video!

Conclusion

Social media platforms are collecting and organizing throngs and masses and hordes of people online. There is incredible opportunity for businesses and organizations to find and interact with their perfect audiences. (Notice I didn’t say “sell to.”) If done intelligently, your efforts in social media will pay off with increased brand awareness, a loyal (and talkative) audience, and increased sales. These new link shortening/tracking tools provide a great measurement tool to help you gauge whether or not you are working intelligently. Use them.

And did I mention they’re free?