Social Media ROI: Alchemy United vs Google URL Builder – Part 3

Welcome back. Quickly, let’s recap. By the end of Part 1 you understood and embraced the value of tagging links with Google URL Builder. In Part 2 I drilled down, spread out and discussed the various tagging parameters. In addition I made suggestions and recommendation on developing a strategy for implementing those parameters within the context of how you might wish to measure your online marketing efforts.

Social Media ROI: Alchemy United vs Google URL Builder – Part 1

Social Media ROI: Alchemy United vs Google URL Builder – Part 2

Before I continue I want to emphasis that this level of thoroughness with the links you share does admittedly entail time, effort and dedication. At this point I presume you’ve also noticed in your social media marketing travels (since read Part 1) that the majority of links shared by brands—both large and small—are in fact not tagged. Conclusion: If you’re looking for a competitive advantage, as well as a deeper understanding of your online marketing efforts then there’s plenty of opportunity right in front of you. Like it or not, victory does not always come easy. Whether online or off the adage, “No pain. No gain.” is as true as ever.

Good news: After Part 3 we’ll be past the half way mark.

More good news: In Part 3 we move away from (what could be considered) the theoretical and into hands-on execution.

Still more good news: Part 3 is somewhat shorter than either of the previous two parts.

Today’s “insider secret” will add a tool know as a URL shortener to your toolbox of tricks for executing and measuring your online marketing efforts. For example, bit.ly and TinyURL.com are both URL shorteners. Chances are you’ve seen shared links using both of these shorteners. It doesn’t matter which URL shortener you use as long as the platform you select offers analytics on the links you shorten. In other words, we want to have access to data that tells us which of the shared links—whether back to your own site, or to any other site—has been clicked. My primary focus for the sake of this discussion will address using bit.ly.

“Why bit.ly?”

There are plenty of free/low cost URL shorteners. I’m going to focus on bit.ly mainly because of bit.ly pro. Wih pro, for the price of a domain name you can have your own vanity URL shortener. For example, Alchemy United’s AUtd.us is done via bit.ly pro. You don’t have to go pro. Nor do you have to go bit.ly. Perhaps I’ll do a round up of URL shorteners sometime soon?

By the way, yes it’s a lower case b in bit.ly. Also, please keep in mind that the only difference between plain vanilla bit.ly and your own bit.ly pro domain is the domain name. The back-end functionality and features are exactly the same. Think of your own domain when using pro as a “mask” or “alias” that just sits in front of  standard bit.ly. Therefore, when I write bit.ly, it’s really just short for saying, “bit.ly and bit.ly pro.” For all practical purposes they’re the same thing.

Now for the tip, tricks and caveats:

(1) When you shorten URLs with bit.ly the stats on that URL are accessible to anyone, not just you. All you or anyone has to do is take the bit.ly URL and add a “+” (without the quotes) to the end. For example, if the shortened URL is http://bit.ly/lo0k1tsShrt then to see the stats page you would use http://bit.ly/lo0k1tsShrt+. When bit.ly sees the “+” at the end it will redirect that request to the analytics page for that URL instead of redirecting you on to the web page of the de-shorten URL.

The concern is your competition could monitor your shortening activity pretty closely. That is, provided they know about the “+” trick. Frankly, most people don’t seem to be aware of this feature. It is however an important “feature” to consider.

(2) You do not own your data, bit.ly does. You get a free service. They get to monetize your data. It’s a fair trade?

(3) Getting your analytics data out of bit.ly isn’t easy. You can not simply export all the links you’ve shortened (with the associated click data, etc.) and then crunch that data locally. This means you have to look up each URL individually. I agree, in some/many cases that might not be practical. Sometimes using the free version of a service isn’t ideal, but in this case it’s a start and it’s better than nothing. bit.ly does give you day by day click stats at the link level so if you have nothing now at least a broad view at 50,000 feet is better than guessing in the darkness. It’s just not easy to get aggregated data without visiting the stats page for each link you’ve shortened.

I would like to mention that bit.ly does offer an API for accessing their data. However, (at this time) I do not know of any service that lets you upload a list of URLs, uses the API to grab the data for those URLs, and then returns what’s been grabbed to you in a consumable format (e.g., .CSV file). Perhaps I should add such building such a service to my to do list?

(4) Since harvesting the analytics data is less than ideal I recommend you use two different bit.ly accounts. One account would be specifically for links back to your own site. The other account would be for links to other sites. This way, when you log into each account your apples won’t be mixed with your oranges. This won’t get you to ground level granularity but at least it’ll drop you down to 40,000 feet from 50,000. Again, not perfect but certainly better than the guessing game you’re playing now.

Technically, your Google Analytics will be tracking any traffic that comes to your site from your tagged and shortened links. Therefore, the bit.ly stats might not be necessary. None the less, I still prefer to use bit.ly to get a quick bird’s eye view of what’s been shared and what’s been clicked. Let’s face it, shortening is good internet manners too. Nobody wants to be faced wit a long winder URL. Therefore, if you’re going to tag, shorten and share links not to your own site, you might as well shorten the tagged links to your site as well. What’s nice is shortening will to the untrained naked eye mask the fact that you’ve become a connoisseur of link tagging. Perhaps this is something you don’t wish to telegraph to your competition?

(5) When you take a shortened URL and post it directly on Facebook, Facebook will automatically de-shorten it (i.e., make it long again). This means that the page request won’t pass through bit.ly since it’s not really a bit.ly URL anymore. In other words, you won’t capture any click stats in bit.ly for those shares.

Not to worry, there’s a workaround for this. It’s simple. Don’t do your page’s updates (with shared links in them) directly on Facebook. Instead, you can sidestep the de-shortening problem by posting updates via the API (e.g., using a service like Postling.com) or by using the update via email option FB provides to pages. (To find the send to email address for your brand’s FB page, log into your page as the admin and then look under the mobile tab.)

(6) There are a couple other minor points but I am honestly trying hard to keep this brief. If possible, I’ll fit these other tips & tricks in before the end of this series.

Conclusion: If 1, 2 and 3 are a major concern then I recommend you strongly consider hosting your own URL shortener. For example, as an “experimental” side project, AU implemented VT802.us using the open source URL shortening PHP script from YOURLS.org. The primary advantage of setting up your own YOURLS.org install is that you retain complete control. It’s your site, your data and only you will see the analytics. You’d also have direct access to the backend database for exporting and more extensive crunching of your data.

Frankly, if I knew about YOURLS.org when I was signing up for AU’s bit.ly pro I probably would have gone with a YOURLS.org based solution. In my defense (if you will), it wasn’t until after using bit.ly for a while did some of these it’s-free-but-it’s-not-quite-perfect caveats come to light. As they say, live and learn. Lucky for you, I’m willing to share these insights. Obviously, if you’re interested in a YOURLS.org based shortener then you’ve come to the right place. We can do that. Else, run with the free version of bit.ly and make the best of it. bit.ly is a viable solution and it’s free. YOURLS’ is great but there are set up and maintenance costs involved.

If your social media marketing budget is $15,000 – $20,000 or more a year than the benefits (read: ROI) of a private YOURLS.org base shortener is in all likelihood easily justified. (Note: The budget figure includes time and well as hard dollars. If you value your time at just $50 per hour that’s approximately $1,500 per month. I trust you can do the math.) After all, if you’re not measuring, you’re not really marketing, yes? The internet and social media marketing is here to stay. The competition for people’s attention online is forever increasing. It’s going to take quality (and occasionally quantity) effort to rise above that fray. The analytics insights from a self-hosted shortener have the potential to be the difference between good and great.

Of course you could also market your public facing URL shortener as a branding tool. With some enhancing YOURL.org could be configured to disallow the stats of selected URLs from being exposed to the public.

So there you go. Imagine that…You share a link that goes to a site other than your own and you can tell how much engagement it pulled with your followers. If you tag that link—and we know you should—you’ll also be able to measure which platforms pulled best, which topics or end sites pulled best, or what day of week and/or time of day pulled best, and so on. It all depends on the parameters you use for tagging. Tagging and shortening adds time but it also adds significant value. On the other hand, not doing so tells you nothing. As they say, you can’t get something for nothing.

The tools are there. Now it’s up to you to use them. Please add your questions and comments below.

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