What Can You Learn From A Short URL?

Part 1 of Doing Competitive Intelligence Analysis With Short Links. 

short url insights.

You can learn a lot about a company based on the links they use in their marketing. We’ve compiled our favorite hacks and tricks into a two part series exploring some competitive intelligence analysis using short URLs. Now pull up a competitor’s social media feed and let’s walk through some analysis together.

Does your competition use a short URL management service?

Do you see long URLs in their posts or do they use a short link service?
This implies the most basic level of savviness with Twitter and other social media channels. For example, pasting in the original, long link, to a tweet will reduce the limited characters available to publish your content. It also wouldn’t allow basic tracking of your marketing performance.  

Consistently use the same short link service?
Having an account with a specific service and, potentially, an internal process on how to create social media links indicates a slightly higher level of sophistication in their social media marketing. A useful indicator that will be helpful in sizing them up.  

Use a custom or branded domain name? How about vanity short URLs?
Is the short link using a domain you haven’t seen before or does it relate to the competitor’s brand?  Are the “codes” at the end of the link a random string of characters or something that makes sense?  This is the next step in gauging the savviness of your competitor. A custom domain name often costs a minimum of $10 / year for just the domain and most link management services charge a premium for supporting one. This signals that the business is financially committed, to at least some degree, to their links and social media marketing. Many link management services don’t allow for “vanity” codes unless you upgrade to one of their paid plans.  

Use a premium short link platform?  Or a free solution?
If the competitor isn’t using a custom domain it might be obvious what platform they are using. However, if they are it can be a little more complicated to tell. By stripping the code off a short link and going to the root domain you can often figure out what link service they are using.  Another trick is to add a few random characters to the end of URL to try and force it to go to an error page.

From there you can look at the pricing associated with the service. While most link management services offer a free tier, clues like the click volume (discussed shortly), the use of a custom domain or vanity codes, are a good indicators of what tier of service they are paying for. This will help you determine how financially committed they are to their links and how effective their marketing is.

Link management services tend to have a specialty or focus. For example, Buffer (“buff.ly/”) is known for its social media scheduling and publishing features, Hootsuite (“ow.ly/”) is best known for its complete social media management services, and HubSpot (“hubs.ly/”) is part of a marketing automation platform.  

Share their performance metrics?

Some link management platforms make performance metrics publicly available. This is a huge opportunity to gain more insight into the general practices used by your competitor and into specific campaigns they are running.  

Don’t want to share your performance metrics with your competitor?  Geniuslink never discloses this info!

To get started, copy a competitor’s link into your browser then try these tricks to learn more about what they’re doing:

Add a plus sign to the end. This is the most common hack and is used by the majority of the link management services including Bitly (“bit.ly/”), Google (“goo.gl/”), smartURL (“smarturl.it/” or “hyperurl.co/”), and hive.am (“hive.am/”). Example: http://smarturl.it/PsyGangnam+ or https://hive.am/scENq+

Add a minus sign (dash) to the end. This trick works for Bit.do (“bit.do/”) and gives an absolute wealth of information. Example: http://bit.do/RunninLoseItAll-

Add a tilde to the end. This is used with the Tiny.cc link management service (“tiny.cc/”).  Note that not all Tiny.cc links will show metrics. Example: http://tiny.cc/litrzx~

Other tricks. Try adding a question mark to the end of the link. Try adding “peek” or “preview” as a subdomain to the URL or “.info” to the end of the link.  

Many services use one of the aforementioned tricks while others like BudURL (“budurl.com/”) or is.gd (“is.gd/” and “v.gd/”) may only give you limited insight such as the final redirect URL.

Once you’ve pulled up a link’s metrics, assuming they were available, there are a whole host of questions the data can help you answer.

What marketing channels does your competitor use?
Besides where you found this link, what other sites or services are listed out in the “referrers” section of the report? How many clicks are coming from each? This insight lets you know where they spend time and and money marketing and how those channels rank in driving engagement. You might see a new way to engage with your audience!  

Where is their target audience based?
There is likely a correlation between where a competitor is getting engagement on their links and where their audience is located. Check the top countries to get an overview. You may find hidden pockets of potential customers based off of this analysis.   

Link reports that include countries and referrers provide great insights.

Countries and Referrers can tell you a lot about how an item is promoted.

How successful is their social media marketing?
One of the best insights a link’s metrics can provide is how many clicks it got and how they were distributed. It’s important to look at these metrics in a few different ways.  

Independently – If a link is for a campaign that you have some insight about, or directly competes with something you do it can be helpful to study it by itself without considering other factors.  However…  

Collectively – The success, or failure, of a single link might not tell you the whole story.  For a thorough analysis of your competitor it’s best to look at a range of links and compare their performance as one link’s stats may be skewed for a certain campaign, audience, marketing channel, etc.  

Relatively – Regardless of the actual numbers, a big spike followed by a sudden or eased drop tells one story.  A slow ramp up followed by sustained activity says something different about the competitors audience and their marketing strategies.  

Absolutely – Similar to analyzing a link Independently, the click metrics for a link used in absolute terms are valuable when you already have a baseline to compare it against. This is extra valuable if you are comparing directly to something you have exclusive access to, your competing campaign.   

Keep digging, lots to learn when you find the link creator.

Keep digging, lots to learn when you find the link creator.

What promotions are in their queue?
Bitly, in particular, lets you see who created and has shared the link you are reviewing. By clicking on the username after the title or near the bottom left of the page you’ll be taken to a page showing all of the links someone has created, even if they haven’t yet been published. This will tell you which promotions they are preparing to launch!  

It can also give insight into their workflow. For example, are lots of links created on the same day near the same time? This indicates that they have a process for creating their links indicating efficiency in their work and predictability in their marketing.

Looking for the “Long Tail”
As you review the locations and channels of the links that your competitor created, you may want to keep an eye out for a specific trend that can indicate if this link was part of a paid campaign.

A list of countries with a gradual tapering of click totals could mean that the link’s traffic was organic.

On the other hand, only having traffic from a handful of countries, English speaking countries for example, may indicate that your competitor used the link with a paid ad campaign and was specifically targeting where they wanted the link to be shown.

However, the opposite may be true with reviewing the referrers where a long list may indicate that arrangements were made to get that link, or ad, broadly distributed and it wasn’t organic.

How much is their link management service costing them?
Knowing how much traffic they are generating from a few links will start to give you an indication on how much click volume they might drive on a monthly basis and how much they may be paying for their link management service. Again, the financial investment a competitor is making into their marketing tools can be a proxy as to the value they are getting from these same channels and audience.   

This wraps up the first part of our two part series on competitive intelligence analysis using the short URLs in a competitor’s social media marketing.  Stay tuned for part two where we learn how to watch how a link resolve to get even more valuable insight.

And of course, leave comments below on any tricks you have up your sleeve!