Custom Short URLs for Social Media: What, Why, and How

custom short urls woman clicking laptop touchpad

Back when your social media posts had strict character count limitations, sharing links to web pages was a bit stressful—especially on Twitter. That’s when short URLs became a necessity. Without them, you could share one link in a tweet and not have enough space to say anything meaningful about it.

To solve this problem, URL shorteners were a great solution. Free services like Bitly, Tinyurl,, and many others started popping up to help us shrink our long, ugly URLs into short ones.

These days, character counts aren’t much of a concern. Twitter has not only extended its character limit to 280 (up from 140). On top of that, Twitter automatically adds its own branded link shortened to links.

And if that’s not enough, Twitter has also decided it doesn’t count links against your character count.

So why use short URLs at all anymore?

willy wonka so glad you asked gif

Furthermore, why go through all the trouble to set up custom short URLs with a branded (vanity) domain?

Well, my friend, that’s what I’m here to talk about. There are many more benefits to using short URLs in your social media posts. Smart marketers know they’re an essential piece of their day-to-day.

In this post, I’m going to give you all the angles to using short URLs in your social media posts. First, I’ll talk about generic short URLs and URL shorteners (such as Bitly and TinyURL). Let’s dig in!

Why Use a Short URL?

There are a handful of reasons you’d want to use a URL shortener (aka link shortener) instead of just pasting the long link into your social messages.

1. Less Cluttered Reading Experience

Website URLs can belong, sometimes obscure looking, and take up a lot of space. Depending on the link, it could completely ruin a smooth reading experience.

Additionally, if they website whose link you’re sharing has hideous URL structure, it may even come off as spammy or disreputable.

Shorter links take up less space and are easier to add in-line while not obscuring the reading.

In addition to the aesthetic though, most URL shortening services add analytics tracking into the links so you can monitor metrics such as:

  • Number of clicks on the link
  • Timeline of clicks
  • Where the link was shared/clicked most
  • Who shared the link

By tracking these metrics, you can gain valuable insight as to what your audience is responding to, where they’re responding to it and who it is that is responding.

If you’re not measuring how well your content is performing, you can’t effectively improve it.

Sometimes when you have a link that you want to share, it’s nice to be able to remember it for later use easily. Or, maybe you want the people who see it to have an easy way to remember it if they can’t type it in right away.

Most link shorteners offer a way for you to customize what is referred to as the “slug.” The slug is what appears after the final slash in the URL. So, for example:

The slug portion of that URL is youtube. This makes it super easy to reuse these URLs and even share them when people can’t click on them—like in a slide presentation. Many speakers have used this strategy to give their audience an easy way to jot down links during a presentation.

4. Easy Specialized Tracking with UTM Codes

Okay, so this is mostly for more advanced use cases and those who want to track specific campaigns in their website analytics program (such as Google Analytics).

Wouldn’t it be a good idea to know which social networks are sending you the most clicks? Or maybe you want to know if a specific kind of message performs better than others. Google Analytics doesn’t always show you this information in an easy way (or with 100% accuracy). In this case, you’d want to add a what’s known as UTM tracking codes at the ends of your links.

UTM tracking allows you to pass specific information into Google Analytics (or other analytics software) to measure the results of each particular link you’ve shared across the web.

Here is an example of what UTM tracking would look like at the end of a URL:

Starting with the question mark, this is what’s known as a UTM string. Here’s a breakdown of what that string of text after the last / is going to record in Google Analytics:

  • utm_source = Shown as “Source” in GA, this tells us what website or social network the link was shared on
  • utm_medium = Shown as “Medium” in GA, this tells us what type of “medium” the place we share this link was (examples: social, email, messenger)
  • utm_campaign = Shown as “Campaign” in GA, this is used for when you’re running different types of campaigns (such as ad campaigns, influencer campaigns, email campaigns) so you can see which campaigns are the most successful.

Some services (such as Agorapulse, Buffer, and CoSchedule) will automatically add these UTM tracking codes to shortened links making the process extremely efficient. You don’t need to go through any extra trouble to create the UTM codes, they’re just automagically added.

Basically, adding these UTM parameters to your shared URLs makes them even longer and less attractive. But if you’re using a URL shortener, these parameters are shortened along with the link and are invisible to everyone.

You get the benefit of advanced tracking for your analytics without the risk of making your links look spammy.

For more on the subject, my friend Robert Nissenbaum has written a comprehensive article on using UTM codes to improve your marketing.

Over the years there have been tons of link shortening services that have popped up. Honestly, most of them don’t bring much to the table as far as differentiation.

At the end of this article, I’ll tell you who my number one pick is (and why). Until then, here are the most popular URL shorteners: homepage

Bitly is probably the most popular of all the stand-alone link shortening services. They paved the way in the industry with their extremely short domain,

They further solidified themselves in the marketplace by integrating with third-party services via their API, so you didn’t have to visit their website to shorten your links. Social Media Management tools such as Buffer, Hootsuite, and others were among the first to jump on the Bitly API and allow their users’ links to be shortened automatically when composing a message.

Their analytics and tracking are pretty great also. The dashboard is beautiful to look at, and you can see lots of information about how your links are spreading across the internet.

Bitly’s downfall, however, has always been its business model. Because it started with such a generous free offering, they really struggled to find the right price point to make revenue. Over the years, this has resulted in a steep decline in how many links free users can create.

Despite its pricing woes, it still remains one of the most popular link shorteners around.

Pro tip: If you ever see a Bitly link that someone else has shared, and you want to know how many clicks it’s gotten, just add a + to the end of the URL and enter it. You’ll be able to see all the analytics for that shortened link.

Now, if you don’t want people seeing your link stats, this may be one reason not to use Bitly.

2. TinyURL | Shorten that long URL into a tiny URL homepage

This site has been around for as long as Bitly, if not longer. Links are shortened with the domain name which is by far the longest domain name of all the link shorteners out there.

Not to knock them too much, though, because one thing they’ve mastered is simplicity. Enter a link, click the “Make TinyURL” button and you’re done.

It’s a free service with no limitations on how many links you can shorten. The drawback, however, is that’s absolutely all you can do with it. No analytics, no click tracking, no help with building UTM parameters.

Nothing. Just shorten your link, and you’re on your merry way.

3. | A URL shortener homepage

This is probably the most basic of all the URL shorteners. has been around for a long time and is one of the shorter domains for shortening your links.

You can customize the slug of your short links, and you can even activate tracking on your links—you have to manually open these advanced settings before shortening your link, though.

If you’ve checked the box to log statistics for your link, you just need to add a - to the end of the short URL to see the stats. But, of course, just like with Bitly, this means anyone can see your stats too.

4. YOURLS | Your Own URL Shortener homepage

For those who don’t want to place their URL shortening on someone else’s server, there’s YOURLS. It is free, open-source software that you can install on your own web server.

It gives you 100% control of your URLs, which domains that you use, and the data that your shortened URLs gather.

For the less tech-savvy, however, this is definitely not the best option as it requires PHP knowledge and knowing a good amount of web development practices. There are a lot of deeply geeky features that you can take advantage of, however, so if you have a developer, this may be an attractive option for you. homepage

Now, BL.INK is the first link-shortener on this list that allows you to actually purchase and manage your short domain names through its platform. This makes it super easy to do what we’ll talk about in the next section—custom short URLs.

In addition to buying and managing custom domains, BL.INK also offers advanced features such as being able to dynamically redirect links based on the device, language, or date in which your links are being clicked.

Lastly, BL.INK offers advanced analytics and will integrate with Google Analytics (and other analytics as well). I haven’t actually used BL.INK, but I expect that this Google Analytics integration is along the lines of UTM tracking as I mentioned previously.

By far, my favorite link-shortener of them all is Rebrandly. It’s the most powerful, most comprehensive, and full-featured link shortener I’ve found.

Rebrandly offers the same level of link-shortening, customizing the slug (or “slashtag” as they call it), and analytics of the previous services. They also offer the ability to buy and manage custom short domains right on their platform, so there is no technical setup to getting your own branded short URLs.

But unlike any other link shortener I’ve tried, Rebrandly offers a few powerful features that were total game-changers for me.

Built-in UTM builder

If you’re not a pro at building UTM strings, Rebrandly will help you build them into your links when you go to shorten them.

shortening a URL with rebrandly
This is what the Rebrandly Chrome extension looks like when you click to shorten a link.

Click on the “UTM” icon and fill in the fields. You really only need Source, Medium, and Campaign. The Term and Content fields are optional.

click to add UTM
fill in UTM fields

You can also save this as a preset to save time the next time you need to create the same UTM string.

create new UTM preset
Create and save your new preset.
saved UTM presets selection box
Easily access your presets to save time shortening links in the future!

Some examples of how I use presets are:

  • Links added to my Instagram profile
  • Links added to YouTube video descriptions
  • Links for Facebook ad campaigns

I absolutely love this feature, and it’s saved me so much time in the long run.

If you want to add an internal memo about a particular link, Rebrandly gives you that ability. This can be super helpful, especially if you’re working in a team and you need to pass along additional information about links.

add note to shortened link
Once you’ve created a short URL you get the “Add options” option.
type your note
Once selected, just start typing your note in the box and click “Save.”
note saved to shortened link

I don’t use this feature much with my small team, but it’s nice to know I have the ability when I need it.

If you’re an organization nut like I am, you’ll love the ability to tag your links. This is a great way to group specific types of links so you can find them easily later on.

add tags to short URL
Click “Tags” to begin added them to your short URL.
select tags for short URL
You can select from your list of tags, or create a new one.
create a new tag in Rebrandly
Give your new tag a name and a color then click “Create tag.”

You can also build custom analytics reports of links based on tags, making reporting super intelligent.

If you’re a super savvy marketer and you want to create rules based on things like country, device, language, date, day of the week, or hour of the day you can!

So if you have both an English and a Spanish version of a link you want to send people to, you can easily set a routing rule based on those parameters.

rebrandly short URL routing rules
add routing filter in Rebrandly
Click to add a filter to route your short URL through.
routing by date example
For example: route the URL based on the date.
choose routing rule in rebrandly
Then choose the “rule” for the filter.
choose date for routing
And this is what it looks like to choose the date.

This is great for time-sensitive links.

For example, let’s say you’re running a giveaway (which I’ll be doing for the post), and that giveaway ends on a specific day. You can set the link to go to your giveaway landing page up until the day it ends, and then after that, it will go to a different landing page.

Amazing, right?!

Oh, but that’s not the most significant game-changing feature for me. This next feature is what has me hooked on Rebrandly.

Let’s say you’re sharing a link to Social Media Examiner’s latest Facebook marketing article. Your followers will click the link, read the article, and that’s the end of it.

Since you don’t own Social Media Examiner (unless you’re reading this and your name is Michael Stelzner... hi, Mike!), you can’t retarget the people who are interested in that article. Since it’s not your site, you can’t place your Facebook retargeting pixel on the site.

Unless you’ve used Rebrandly to shorten the link and add your Facebook pixel in the link! What?!

add retargeting to short URLs
Click to add your retargeting scripts such as Facebook pixel, Twitter pixel, or other marketing script.
paste your retargeting script

Yes, that’s right—every link you shorten with Rebrandly gives you the ability to attach your own marketing pixels to the short link. And once you’ve added your scripts to Rebrandly, they are always there for easy access—just one click to add it to any short URL.

select saved scripts

This feature was a total game-changer for me. It meant I can curate other people’s content and use that content to actually retarget my audience based on their interests.

Okay, so you clearly see I have a personal favorite when it comes to link-shortening service. So let’s move on to talk about custom short URLs and why you should be using them instead of generic ones.

Take it to the Next Level with Custom Short URLs

custom short urls increase click-through rate quote

There are plenty of reasons you should ditch using generic short domains such as or any of the default link shorteners built into tools like Buffer or Hootsuite. But first, let’s clarify exactly what a custom short URL is.

A custom (or branded) short URL is when the domain on the shortened link has some sort of relevance to you or your brand. For example:

  • Mashable uses
  • New York Times uses
  • Huffington Post uses
  • Google uses its own
  • Warfare Plugins uses

Having your own custom short URL has a more professional appeal to it. It also tells your audience that you’re slightly more sophisticated in your marketing.

anchorman big deal gif

Additionally, a study by theBitly team found that:

“branded short domains drive up to a 34% increase in CTR when compared to unbranded links.”

That means that just having a custom branded short URL you could be getting 34% more clicks on your shared links. That’s a big deal.

But there’s one last benefit to having your own branded short URL that I think is not to be overlooked.

A branded short link shows that you have personally shortened it. The shortened link was not just shortened anywhere by anyone because nobody holds the keys to your custom short domain but you.

One of the biggest problems with public URL shorteners is that they’ve been so widely abused.

Since anyone can shorten a link through Bitly or (R.I.P.), for example, that means that they can easily disguise malicious links and people will unknowingly click-through to something they aren’t expecting.

This was such a widespread epidemic for a while that people have begun to mistrust any Bitly link.

With a custom short URL you’re lending your name (or brand name) and your seal of approval to whatever that link forwards to. It’s an added layer of trust that cannot be overlooked.

How to Set Up Custom Short URLs

Okay, Dustin, you’ve convinced me that I should totally be using a custom domain when shortening my links. So how do I do it?

I’m so glad you asked, dear reader.

There are three primary ways you can go about setting up your own branded link shortener.

The hardest way to set up custom short URLs

If you read about YOURLS above, then you know that by default you’re using your custom domain name to shorten links. However, that is a very technical route to go just for having a boost in branding.

But if you love fiddling with Open Source scripts, and know your way around your own server, get YOURLS installed and you’ll be all set.

The easier way to set up custom short URLs

If you use Bitly and want to continue using it because it integrates with all of your social media tools and apps—that’s totally understandable. They do offer the ability to use a custom short domain in your account.

The only limitation with using a custom domain with Bitly is that the domain must be 15 characters or less (including the dot).

First, you’ll need to purchase the short domain with a domain registrar. Setting it up to work with your Bitly account will then require you to make some changes to your domain’s DNS records on your domain registrar.

If that sounds a bit too technical for you already, don’t worry—my friend Dave Shrein has created a step-by-step tutorial to walk you through the process.

The easiest way to set up custom short URLs

If you want to completely avoid the complexity of buying a domain name and then managing the DNS records, Rebrandly makes it much easier.

As I stated previously, Rebrandly allows you to purchase short domains right within your account. That means once you buy the domain, it’s ready to be used immediately without any further configuration.

buy and manage short domains in rebrandly
Buy and manage your custom short domains with Rebrandly.

I currently have 4 custom domains registered through Rebrandly. It’s a bit of an addiction at this point.

I still use another custom domain through my Bitly account, however, because there are many apps I use which integrate with it and don’t integrate with Rebrandly (yet).

Downside to Using Short URLs

hold up, hold my phone

There are also some cons to using a custom branded short URL that I was recently made aware of.

There still exists a degree of trust issues that people have with any shortened link. Since the primary link is hidden, it’s very easy for spammers and scammers to get people to click on potentially shady links.

This means some people just won’t click on a shortened link. But if you’re a trustworthy person and people know that, then this shouldn’t be an issue.

Best Practices with Short URLs

Short URLs, whether branded or unbranded, are great for specific contexts. There are, however, certain instances where you do not want to use them. So here’s a short list of short URL best practices:

  • Never in anchor text or hyperlinks. Or in other words, not on web pages or in blog posts. There is speculation that placing short URLs in HTML links can result in bad SEO mojo.
  • Never use them on Pinterest for pins. Pinterest began removing pins with affiliate links and shortened URLs back in 2015. Best to just avoid using short URLs entirely on Pinterest.
  • Never shorten an already shortened link. Not only is it redundant, but it can also get flagged as an error by web browsers for having too many redirects. If this happens, the link will essentially be useless.

Most of these are just good sense. A shortened link’s primary purpose is to improve the user experience. If you’re looking at using a shortened link for an instance where that purpose doesn’t apply, you probably don’t need to shorten it.

Final Thoughts

Using short URLs on social media can help your messages have more visual appeal, higher click-throughs, and give you extra insight into the effectiveness of the content you’re sharing.

To me, the positives far outweigh the potential negatives. As a professional in the world of content marketing and social media, I need to know what’s working and what’s not working so I can teach and apply that insight to my clients and customers.

So are you using short URLs in your social posts? What URL shortener are you using? Share your thoughts in the comments by clicking here.

Dustin W. Stout Avatar

23 responses to “Custom Short URLs for Social Media: What, Why, and How”

  1. James Lewis Avatar

    Amazing article! I totally agree with you that there are a lot more positives to using short URLs than there are negatives, at least in my experience!

  2. Dustin W. Stout Avatar

    You can read my post all about how to choose the right brand colors. I actually have that article on my list to update soon.

  3. Analaz Avatar

    I love your web design and color selections. Can you suggest for me to a place to choose perfect colors for an e-commerce site?

  4. Dustin W. Stout Avatar

    No, it’s a 1-year registration.

  5. Master Jamboree Avatar

    Thanks for the giveaway sir. Will the validity remain for life?

  6. Dustin W. Stout Avatar

    Hi, Lashay! I use Cloudways and have never been happier with a webhost.

  7. Lashay Cardona Avatar
    Lashay Cardona

    Great blog here! Also your website loads up fast! What web host are you using? Can I get your affiliate link to your host? I wish my site loaded up as fast as yours lol

  8. Dustin W. Stout Avatar

    Yea, you’re not the only one, Karrin. There are a lot of people still using the default bitly shortener.

  9. Karrin Frost Avatar
    Karrin Frost

    I’ve been using Bitly for the longest time and never knew that you could use a custom domain. Thanks for the advice!

  10. Dustin W. Stout Avatar

    Glad you liked it, Erin!

  11. Erin Avatar

    Wow, I never realized so much went into short URLs. Thanks, Dustin!

  12. Xenia Avatar

    Amazing article! I totally agree with you that there are a lot more positives to using short URLs than there are negatives, at least in my experience! I especially love sharing branded short links on my social media channels – they stand out a lot more and I’ve noticed that people tend to click on them more as well. I create mine with Capsulink, which is a pretty useful tool (advanced URL shortener) I’ve been using for the past couple of months and will definitely continue using it because the results are simply amazing 🙂

  13. Dustin W. Stout Avatar

    Thanks for the lengthy response Derric! And yes, I 100% agree with everything you’ve said. I never thought about the guest post angle for short URL anchor text. And if one is using a tool like Rebrandly where there is a high-level of control and customization on the custom short URL, I think that is perfectly legit!

  14. Derric Haynie Avatar

    I’ve been studying the “short link” in anchor text thing a bit now and think that it is totally fine to put a short link in anchor text. There’s really only one reason to do this:

    When you don’t have control over the piece of content the link is going in.

    And you should never really do this on your own site in between blog posts, or from a blog to a homepage, as it will likely mess up your analytics.

    But here’s a good example of when to do it:

    Let’s say you are publishing a new blog post for Tech Crunch or Social Media Examiner and want to link to your site in the author bio section. Well, if you just link straight to your homepage there isn’t much else you can do to change that link later. Why would you want to change it? Maybe you want to separate the traffic from Tech Crunch to a custom page that says “Welcome Tech Crunch users” or maybe the main home page becomes about some other business, and the one referenced in the Tech Crunch article got moved to a product page.

    Also, it allows you to more easily add/hide UTM parameters in the link so that you can better track that traffic when it hits your site.

    The hit to SEO is either 0% or very close to it, so I wouldn’t worry about that.

    Just an idea for actually using a custom short link in anchor text.

    And as to the “disrepect” of shortening someone elses content under your own branded shortener. I think its totally fine, and WAY better than using a generic shortener. Ideally you are letting people know the source somewhere in the headline (with a via @ or something), and they will know the destination soon enough anyways.

    What I am against, however, is putting your own CTA on top of someone elses website by using an iFrame or the like. I believe this is really bad for user experience and an unsustainable strategy. That’s ripping off others content if I’ve ever seen it. Using your own branded short link is more about organizing content, certainly not about masking the source.

    And if you aren’t clicking on short links, you shouldn’t be on the web… Your browser has security measures built in to protect you from malicious links, and if you suspect someones link is malicious to begin with, what are you doing reading their social feed?

  15. Avatar

    I was pretty pleased to find this site. I want to to thank you for ones time just for this
    wonderful read!! I definitely enjoyed every bit of it and
    I have you saved as a favorite to check out new
    stuff in your blog.

  16. Dustin W. Stout Avatar

    Without walking through every step with you and looking at your website backend I wouldn’t know what to tell you. :/

  17. ashley caswall Avatar
    ashley caswall

    Hi Dustin,
    I’m hoping you can help me. I’ve reached out to wordpress, godaddy, buffer and to trouble shoot the issue I am having. My links work through the app/website but once posted to social media, they do not work. It will link up to my website but not the actual post. It shows a 404 page. Also, in my acct, I have a dns configuration error. I’ve checked my a record. I have two. One that was originally there that connects my “@” to the main one. and then I have my short domain attached to the a record they provided. It will not validate. Any thoughts?

  18. Dustin W. Stout Avatar

    Bitly integrates with Buffer. I use a custom short URL set up through Bitly and have it activated in my Buffer link-shortening settings.

  19. Andrew Burchfield Avatar
    Andrew Burchfield


    Are you connecting this to Buffer at all? I use “Feedly” to populate my calendar with articles, blogs etc..

    Right now the process is … Feedly > Buffer > Platforms…

    Where does BITLY play into this setup?

    Thanks… Hope you’re well!

  20. Dustin W. Stout Avatar

    Awesome Erik! Looking forward to hearing more about your work with Evertouch! Exciting things are ahead for you!

  21. Erik Andersen Avatar
    Erik Andersen

    Dustin – –

    Another great share in your update email today! I recently discovered IFTTT and LOVE IT! Haven’t had or made time yet to explore it too deeply, but I sure think it has huge potential to help me and evertouch on many fronts. Also, loved this article on shortened URLs and their use. You inspired me to go out and grab for Evertouch Contacts Pty Ltd. Not sure yet how we’re going to use it… but we will. Thanks for all the insider stuff. Keep up the good work!

    Cheers… Erik

  22. Dustin W. Stout Avatar

    Thanks for stopping by Gary!

  23. Gary Whalen Avatar
    Gary Whalen

    I retired 16 years ago and started with internet a few years after that and have met less than a half dozen real world people who admit to using email.
    I have read many comments from Dustin, Martin and others and to me I need someone to translate the language which is well done in Notification sections elsewhere. I try to avoid Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest or YouTube. I have no idea how to get to any of those places anymore anyway. Also I do not charge to buy software or merchandise.

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