When you want to show someone something on the Internet, you must tell them where it is located, just as you might refer them to the street address of a particularly attractive house that you noticed for sale in your home town. On the Internet the address you’d give them is referred to as the URL, or Uniform Resource Locator, which is technically a sub-set of the URI, or Uniform Resource Identifier, but for the purposes of this discussion I’ll simply refer to the URL when talking about an address on the Internet to which you might want to direct your hypothetical friend.
(Wikipedia’s interesting article that explains the term URL and the more extensive one on the URI taught me some things I hadn’t known previously. So if you are so inclined, those articles might be an interesting bit of diversionary reading. The one on the URL contains a graphic that depicts each component in a URL and explains its function.)
Sending someone a link to something on the Internet has become quite common, and the recently passed holiday gift giving season provided ample opportunity for many of us to send links to friends and relatives as a way of specifying exactly which “precious” that we wanted as a gift. Fortunately, some URLs are short and sweet. For instance, http://www.cnn.com or http://www.nytimes.com are examples. However, once you have finally located that particular component for your new digital camera on Best Buy’s web site and want to let Aunt Susie know about it, the URL you’ve found can be quite long, because the component is buried deep in the bowels of Best Buy’s site. When you copy and paste the URL into an email for Aunt Susie, it may arrive in an unusable form because her email program may have wrapped the excessively long line and “broken” the URL you sent, meaning she can’t just click on it and have it open in her browser. Depending upon Aunt Susie’s level of geekitude, she may be baffled by the fact that the link you sent doesn’t work (she might get a 404 error) and you may end up with a scarf she crocheted for you instead of what you wanted, or at the very least, she might have to copy and paste the URL back together. Adding such an obstacle to Aunt Susie’s getting you the gift you want isn’t a good idea. Enter TinyURL.
Simply put, TinyURL makes long URLs shorter. Follow the link and read about how it works and about how you can put a link on your browser toolbar so that using the service becomes quite easy.
However, there is a downside to using TinyURL. When you receive a link that was condensed by this service, you have no way of knowing where you are being directed and hence, you run some risk in clicking on one that you might be directed to a malicious site. For instance, yesterday morning I received a link from my friend Paul Moor that mentioned in the message’s subject that it had something to do with the Osama bin Laden virus, and all that the message said was “Read this link (and then it gave the TinyURL) C A R E F U L L Y.” As a recipient of this message I had no idea where it was leading me, and while I trust that Paul wouldn’t intentionally direct me to a malicious site, it is possible that he might naively direct me somewhere I wouldn’t want to go.
Fortunately, TinyURL has added a feature recently that solves this problem. It is called the preview feature. What this feature does is create a TinyURL that takes you first to the TinyURL site where the original URL is displayed, thus allowing you to see where you are being directed before you choose to go there. You can turn this feature on and then any TinyURLs you create will be of the “preview” variety. Because this service is so useful, I use it often, but now that I have enabled the preview feature any recipients of TinyURL links I forward will have the confidence that if they click them, they’ll be able to determine in advance whether they wish to visit the site to which I have referred them.