URL-shorteners are old news, with services like Bit.ly and Twitter’s own t.co allowing users to make long URLs less obtrusive. Also old news is the fact that Bit.ly and other services allow you to use a custom (branded) domain with their services – for free. The feature has been around since at least 2010. Then other services like Facebook and Twitter have launched their own URL-shortening services as well – fb.me and goo.gl respectively – but mostly as a means to protect their users from the potentially harmful / offensive linked content at the other end of the web.

Fast forward to today and the idea of branded short URLs is becoming increasingly popular among individuals. Not just companies or popular blogs: actual people, mostly public figures with a strong personal brand. I suspect this might be related to the recent expansion in the TLD offering, with common folk being able to register better (shorter?) domain names for their brands and personal names. But it definitely goes beyond that too, because some of the shortened URLs are actually not so short – so “branding” and analytics are probably still big factors.

Some examples from real people:

As you can see its a common practice to register domains that are as short as possible, but not everyone is lucky enough to find a short domain name. And that’s why I’m writing this post: time to think “out of the box”!

Finding a Solution

Let’s begin that process with a basic assumption: most people never “manually transcribe” a link into their browser’s address-bar. This assumption might be even more reasonable on mobile devices, where attempting something like that across apps would be borderline ridiculous unless you can split the screen. The reason I’m saying this is an “assumption” is that I don’t have the tools to prove or disprove it, but I think its safe to assume it as true because shortened URLs are mostly gibberish from a user’s point of view (after all that’s why they can be so short!) and therefore transcribing them would be a tedious and error-prone endeavour.

Armed with that assumption we can add that:

  1. The advantage of “branding” a shortened URL is that users will see/read something on the link that reminds them of your brand instead of someone else’s. For example for a company that is constantly sharing links like TechCrunch it makes more sense to shorten links using the “tcrn.ch” domain than with “bit.ly” – this example alone should be enough to make the point. So the rule that we can abstract here is that the ONLY requirement to meet the branding need is that the brand can be visually identified in the domain name.
  2. Since shortened URLs are hardly ever manually transcribed (our assumption), we shouldn’t care about how easy it is to type the URL into an address-bar. Sure: bit.ly or t.co are super-easy to type and would cover the rare use-case of someone wanting to transcribe that gibberish. But good luck finding such a short domain: for the average individual, being able to do it would be equivalent to winning the lottery – and possibly even more unlikely than that!
  3. By now lots of people use Unicode to post things on Facebook and Twitter. But few people know that a wide range of those Unicode characters is accepted in domain names (some examples) thanks to IDNA2008. Also: all major modern browsers support it!
  4. There are still MANY short domain names that include Unicode characters that have not been claimed. People with evil intentions are using them for spoofing, but I haven’t seen anyone using them for URL shortening.

Special Characters Domain Hack

Knowing this I was able to search for and find my own super-short domain name that follows my first name: gá.be – since ga.be (without the tilde) was already taken of course. I also registered štr.at, which is a nice short domain for Strategery.

As a bonus, the accented á is not that hard to type either: the character is present in the extended ASCII table (code 160) and is part of at least 16 languages. If you’re one of the 490 million people that speak Spanish (which ranks second in native speakers after Mandarin) you might even be able to type it with just two keystrokes.

So the idea is that instead of “shortening” URLs to a long domain name, there’s an opportunity to search for and register a VERY short domain name using special characters that still reflect your personal brand’s identity. Since the only purpose for that domain would be URL-shortening, we can easily overcome most limitations if IDNs (see the next section).

An URL shortening service called TinyArrows already picked up on this, allowing their users to shorten URLs to ➡.ws or ✩.ws – if you’re lucky enough that your company name can be represented with a supported “special character” then this could be a great way of finding a vanity domain. An example of what I mean: “mw♥.ws”

Some tools that can help:

  1. List of special characters supported by domain names (link).
  2. Domai.nr

Keep in mind that different TLDs support different characters, usually related to the TLDs locale (for example .de will support characters common in the German language). It seems like the .ws TLD is one of the most permissive.

Some examples (some based on the tweets mentioned above):

  • ferýn.eu / ferÿn.eu – 2 characters shorter than l.feryn.eu (feryn.eu is being used for the site/blog so it can’t be used to shorten URLs).
  • léw.is – same length as lew.im but contains his entire first name.
  • mw♥.ws / with♥.ws – might be a good one for madewithlove.

Some Considerations

Before you try this out please be aware of certain security considerations. There are both Visual and Non-Visual issues, but since we’re the ones providing the URL through an authenticated channel, and people will not manually transcribe it, the only issues that are really relevant would be the Non-Visual issues. Based on that section of the article, its important to make sure that the characters used are unlikely to be resolved incorrectly by registrars. There seem to be only a few of “ambiguous” characters like that, so for most people it should be relatively easy to avoid this problem. An automated tool would be ideal to identify any potential ambiguity.

Another important consideration is browser and email client support (since sometimes these links may be emailed). Fortunately we live in a world where most major browsers and email clients can deal with special characters in domain names very well. So unless you care about the part of your audience that is using e.g. IE7 or earlier then you’re safe.

Font support should also be considered: not all fonts support special characters. This is again a minor issue because fonts in popular sites like Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest (etc.) all support those characters very well. But if you’re one of those guys who cares if their link is re-shared in a some niche social network with really bad font choices, then you might want to hold off from this approach for a while. As for blogs and websites that might want to re-share your content: most will either retweet (or re-share) the original post, or use the resolved URL to share or re-shorten. So that shouldn’t be a problem.

Make sure you read and understand the rules for registering IAN domains under the TLD that you’ll be using to make sure your domain application is not rejected.

Finally, you should challenge yourself to understand the pros and cons of using URL shorteners in the first place. Needless to say: if you venture into this you’re on your own. I do not provide warranties of any kind, express or implied 😉

Conclusion

There’s an opportunity to register short domain names using special characters. It trades some important features for some very minor drawbacks – and if like me you’re just the average bloke: chances are you won’t care about those minor drawbacks.

If this was useful or you have any further insights I’d love to see your comment!

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