TinyURL: A Minnesota Story

Did you know that a tiny service used 1.5 billion times per month was created in Minnesota?

TinyURL is a service I’ve used often (especially when using Twitter) and this creation by Blaine, MN developer, Kevin Gilbertson, is quite popular.

I was first alerted that this was a Minnesota creation by St. Paul Pioneer Press reporter Julio Ojeda-Zapata (column, blog) when he put out a ‘tweet’ on Twitter about the service’s Minnesota connection. Of course, I poked around to find out more and was just delighted on what I discovered.

Then sitting down to breakfast this morning with the StarTribune, I saw this article entitled, “TinyURL developer basking in website’s success” which covers the man behind TinyURL and a bit about the service. The article lays out how Gilbertson could make ~$1 million per month but chooses not to have annoying popup ads (thank you Kevin!). He makes enough per month that he apparently doesn’t need to work outside of making TinyURL better and is able to focus on his passion for unicycling (peek at the Strib article for more).

Julio’s writing, the Strib’s coverage and ours is fantastic for a new and successful Minnesota startup, but not everyone agrees that services like TinyURL are ones we should rely upon.

Kevin Gilbertson

TinyURL is efficient, simple to use and has great utility. I love it since I’m constantly emailing loooong URL’s to people (e.g., a Google Map URL). Doing so guarantees that the 80 character lines in an email will cause that long URL to “wrap” and break it, forcing people to cut-n-paste the URL into a word processor or something and hope that the recipient gets every last character. It’s a nightmare for the technically unsophisticated or for those that are using older email programs that don’t take long URL’s into account (which most modern ones do as do web hosted email like Gmail or Hotmail).

Last Fall, TinyURL’s servers were down for awhile and I didn’t even realize it until I saw this post by ReadWriteWeb, a tech blog I follow. A couple of comments stuck out to me:

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.

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 infoworld.com 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.

Slashdot (News for Nerds, Stuff That Matters) had a submission which asked the question, “Do Tiny URL Services Weaken Net Architecture?

“Thanks to twitter, SMS, and mobile web, a lot of people are using the url minimizers like tinyurl.com, urltea.com. However, now I see a lot of people using it on their regular webpages. This could be a big problem if billions of different links are unreachable at a given time. What if a service starts sending a pop-up ad along with the redirect. What if the masked target links to a page with an exploit instead of linking to the new photos of Jessica Alba. Are services like tinyurl, urltea etc. taking the WWW towards a single point of failure? Is it a huge step backward? Or I’m just crying wolf here?”

The concept of a Uniform Resource Locator (URL) is that it’s a pointer to a web page, file or other resource located on the internet. With so many of these URL’s now being pointed to by this private “URL-pointing-to-URL” service, there is a potential bottleneck with a single point of failure (TinyURL); a disconcerting redirect capability (evildoers pointing to ‘real’ URL’s with the TinyURL staying constant but the underlying one changing); or an outright acquisition by another company that decides to just shut down the service.

I talked today with Kevin Gilbertson, founder and head of TinyURL, and asked about these points specifically and gained confidence in how he’s dealing with the issues above. He detailed these perspectives about his service and the steps he’s taking to ensure it remains a robust and scalable one:

  • Any site is a single point of failure and Gmail is a great example of a successful service that can go down and all of your email is inaccessible (intimating that this doesn’t keep people from using it in droves)
  • He’s never going to flick the switch off. No matter what, he’s ensured that all the current TinyURL’s would remain live — and if he did shut it down for some highly unlikely reason — people couldn’t create new TinyURL’s
  • If he sold TinyURL, he’d make certain provisions were in the sell agreement keeping all previously created TinyURL’s live
  • TinyURL runs is scalable and, in fact, uses few resources as it’s a quick lookup table running on multiple servers as load dictates
  • He did mention that TinyURL is hosted in Amsterdam…Gilbertson has a friend that runs a co-location business there.

Though I’m no expert in international law, hosting in Amsterdam, the capital city of a constitutional monarchy the Netherlands (though The Hague is its seat of government and is known as “the international city of peace and justice”), seems OK for an “international internetwork” web service like TinyURL. Still, for a service increasingly inserted between internet users and the actual URL they’re seeking, I’d be more comfortable if there was failover and redudancy with servers in other countries too.

Competitors abound and depending on your perspective, this is a problem or opportunity that is only going to accelerate as more and more of us use these sorts of services (and I predict TinyURL will only grow stronger). Will URL shortening services like these damage the intricate connections of the Web in some way? Are people going to use them for critical URL lookups or only temporary and throw-away links like ones to a Google Map for directions or ones inserted into a Twitter stream? Only time will tell.

In the meantime, I’m pleased that the #1 URL shortening service, TinyURL, is a Minnesota grown one, and that the guy who created it is such a level-headed, farsighted individual. Check it out and I’m certain you’ll find it useful.

Originally published here on July 9, 2008 at my other site, Minnov8

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  1. steve vennemann on August 23, 2008 at 1:39 pm

    Good story . I personally dont like pop us either. I think they are annoying and We dont have it on our site.http://www.mnlakeplace.com

  2. steve vennemann on August 23, 2008 at 1:40 pm

    Good story . I personally dont like pop ups either. I think they are annoying and We dont have it on our site.http://www.mnlakeplace.com

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