Let’s say you discover how cool http://maps.google.com is (you’re just discovering that now? What, have you been living in a cave?), and you want to email to a friend, or post a blog with a link to, say, a scrollable, zoomable satellite & street map of the tourist attractions in Washington D.C. But you don’t want to uglify your text with the ungainly URL of: http://maps.google.com/maps?f=q&hl=en&q=washington+monument&ie=UTF8&ll=38.890198,-77.028923&spn=0.024618,0.054245&t=h&om=1 (see how ugly that is?) You might also worry about whether it wrap across lines, and whether cut&paste will work, etc. Of course, that ugly URL can be hidden behind HTML like this, but it can be an ungainly process, and sometimes you actally want to display a link (and if you’re like me, then you prefer to send (and receive) plain text emails anyways).

Along comes tinyurl.com! Upon request, they take any large, cryptic URL (or small, meaningful URL, for that matter), and generate a URL that, while it may still be cryptic, at least it’s small. Like this: http://tinyurl.com/oezzp. They maintain a database that points each tiny URL to its ugly counterpart, and they promise that every tinyURL ever generated will never expire.

WARNING: I do not recommend wandering around the tinyURL space, seeing where you get with random codes. Codes 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 are fine (and reveal the primary hobby of tinyURL’s founder!), but when I ranged beyond that, I pretty quickly landed in some porn. But that’s what you get when you randomly poke around the web anyways, so (I don’t think) that this is any kind of risk for the innocent user of tinyURL.com, who wishes to remain innocent. If you’re really worried, at tinyURL you can enable their ‘preview feature’, which sets a cookie that lets tinyURL know that you want to be shown the link you are being redirected to, before being sent there). Carrying on…

How do you get your own tinyURL? One way is to type (more likely copy & paste) your giantURL into the form at the site. But the coolest thing is that there is no need even to copy & paste the old uglyURL; tinyURL provides a link button (just drag their link to your link bar) with an automatic create request, so that with your browser open to the uglyURL you want tinified, navigate directly to tinyURL using the button, and it automatically generates a new tinyURL for you, which you can copy & paste into wherever. In addition, if you are using InternetExplorer v4+, tinyURL even does you the favor of Copying (CTRL-C) the new tinyURL into your clipboard, so that all you need to do is Paste (CTRL-V).

Don’t worry that by navigating to tinyURL.com, you will exhaust the set of tinyURLs that can be generated. For one thing, it is intelligent enough to recognize uglyURLs that already have associated tinyURLs, and provide the same tinyURL (thus I can predict that when any of you ask for a tinyURL to the permalink to this post, you will see http://tinyurl.com/lz87d). Also, tinyURLs are still using only 5-character unique codes, and since there are 10 digits and 26 letters (URLs are not case sensitive, so we can’t double to 52 letters), that allows for 60,466,176 unique 5-character tinyURLs (not to mention 1,679,616 4-character codes, 46,656 3-character codes, 1296 2-character codes, and 36 1-character codes that probably have already been used up). As of today, their front page claims only 23 million tinyURLs generated so far (and 450 million hits/month, so people must be using these things!) The copyright says 2002-2006, so the site may have been in operation for 4 years; it will take a while yet (or a massive burst of publicity) to exhaust all the 5-character codes. And when 6-character codes become necessary, that’s 2,176,782,336 (over 2 billion) fresh new codes available! That’s the beauty of combinatorial explosion!

4 Responses

  1. I dunno, seems like an unnecessary level of obfuscation to me. I’ll stick to making simple links like this. The only benefit I’ve ever seen in posting an actual URL is to let the user see where the link actually points to before going there — but tinyURL doesn’t help with that.

    Here’s what I really want: the ability to link to any string of text on a document I want. Let’s say I’m quoting something that appears in a long text about fifteen screens down on a webpage. Why can’t I create a link that automatically jumps to the text I’m quoting and highlights it? It should be as simple as a link with a # anchor (http://www.cnn.com/somearticle#readhere), but unless someone has included anchors all over the article (and happened to place one exactly where I find it useful), anchors are no help to me. We should be able to create links like this:

    http://www.cnn.com/somearticle&”and this is the part of the sentence I want to show up at the top of the screen and highlighted”

    Maybe there’s a way to do this that I’m simply unaware of.

  2. Note — wordpress tried to activate the model link I posted, so that some of it appears highlighted in blue, the rest not. Unfortunate. The entire thing should be regular text so that you can actually read the link as a unified whole.

  3. I don’t think that’s generally possible unless, as you note, the web page author has included anchors. Maybe you can learn Java and host a new tinyURL-ish web-service called anchorsAweigh.com, or insideURL.com, such that links of the form


    would cause the insideURL server to fetch and scan the requested web page, find the highlighted text, and present it to you, scrolled and highlighted appropriately.

    Hey, insideURL.com doesn’t exist… hurry up and register it!

  4. I wish it was easier to find permalinks to individual WordPress comments, for example, number 141 out of 154 (and probably no longer counting). I don’t know if it’s just the theme I’m using, but the only way I can find to discover the permalink to a comment is

    Mass Edit Mode
    (search to isolate comment)

    What a pain!

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