A Closer Look at the Link Landscape

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Last year, we gave you an intro to the Intelligent Link Landscape, alongside a nifty visualization. We also gave you some statistics detailing some of the key industries and functional areas, as well as how 26 different link providers fit into them.

This Year We Composed a “Short Link Provider” Market Report

We took some of those same key players, added a few new players (as well as a new major industry) and analyzed them relative to each other. This report will provide stats about the growth of the industry (minus the app industry: our metric wouldn’t fairly account for it), segment the key players in the market, and finally, outline the use of Intelligent Links on some of our favorite social media sites.

Even Toasters Are Intelligent These Days — So What Makes a Link Intelligent?

The best way to answer this question is to look back at what are NOT considered Intelligent Links. Old School link providers, such as Bit.ly or Hootsuite, simply allow you to shorten a link to a single destination, and provide very limited analytical functionality. These links will always direct users to a single, pre-specified destination. They’re static!  

Intelligent Links, however, are dynamic in nature and may do different things depending on external inputs.  That means doing cool things like sending users to different locations based on where they clicked from, or what device they were using. Intelligent Links can automatically add affiliate tracking IDs to enable international commissions, point to a destination that’s inside another app, or even set retargeting pixels for anyone who clicked that link.  This only scratches the surface of what can be done with an Intelligent Link! If you’re interested in learning more, we recommend checking out this article What is an Intelligent Link? [Infographic] (take your time, we’ll wait).  

Why We’re Telling You About This

All Domains WA

There are a lot of link shorteners out there. Each colored word above represents an individual domain name available for commercial use, across numerous different services — providing both smart and old-school links. We counted 63 of them across 49 providers and are guessing there are many more still out in the wild. (Please let us know your favorites in comments below!) This makes for a rapidly evolving industry with lots of new players. An industry in which we’re trying to stay on top of! 

Our Metrics

There’s no perfect way to measure size and growth of our friends in the greater “Link Landscape”, but we came up with a way to approximate. To develop our colorful graphs, we needed some sort of metrics that could be found for each service, so we decided to Google it. No, really! Our metrics are based on the number of Google results for each particular link shortener’s domain. We plugged each domain into a Google advanced search and tallied the total number of results.

Score: the number of results appearing from a Google search for a specific domain.

results

We then added a date range associated with each domain, in order to determine the increase of results on a monthly basis. Finally, we dove even deeper into Google’s advanced search by combining the link shortener domains with popular website keys like “Reddit” and “Twitter” to see how many of those results pointed towards each of the most popular social media giants.

Disclaimers

Keep in mind that we did have to make some assumptions:

Correlation: Google’s search results for a specific domain aren’t a perfect indicator of growth or total web presence of the link shortening service, but we do believe that they provide some evidence and correlation for them. We assume that each search gives the total number of results Google is capable of providing at that moment in time.

Specific use: Unfortunately we can’t look at every single result. There are dozens of domains pointing to millions of sites, which means it’s impossible for us to look at each one of them and determine whether each particular page was used to sell a book or stream a song or something else entirely.

Segmentation: We know that some providers specialize in certain industries (books, music, content, products, etc.) but for the same reason as the disclaimer above, it’s impossible for us to separate these providers’ total results into industry segments. So we use each relevant providers’ results as a whole in analysis at the industry level.

Custom domains: A popular feature of link shorteners is to provide the use of a custom domain with an account.  Our findings per service don’t include links that use custom domains so those services that have this as a marquee feature may be under indexed.

An Overview of Our Findings

In late 2016 we found 49 link providers. 32 of those were Intelligent Links providers, leaving 17 as “old-school” providers. Our word cloud shows the Intelligent Links providers in terms of relative size. The 32 accounted for a combined 4.2 million results for Intelligent Links on the web.

all-intelligent-players-by-size

SmartURL was the largest Intelligent Link provider in 2016, accounting for just over 73% of the industry. Yours truly, Genius Link, provided about 2% of those results and our competitor, Linkfire, accounted for 17%. Also notable is LinkIs who accounted for about 4.5%. The remaining 3.5% was split among the other 14 providers.

If one adjective could sum up 2016’s activity, it would be inconsistent. The year saw — by far — the most varying results on a month over month basis. The chart below illustrates the year’s total results (by month), along with average monthly results.

2016-monthly-totals

You see the Isengard’s tower there? It’s the massive jump in March we’re talking about. March and June brought wild fluctuations in monthly results for 2016. Hootsuite’s March results alone were 4.23 times larger than its February results. If you exclude results from March and June, you’ll find that the monthly standard deviation drops by 78% and the monthly average by 45%. Bit.ly accounts for most of the results in 2016 (as they do every year), but the smaller providers experienced the same trend in growth. Keep in mind this anomaly greatly skews any total growth metrics we show you that include 2016. We think these months are still valuable to our data here, as they could tell some sort of story, or point to a new trend.

Intelligent vs. Old School

Old School link shorteners account for a mass proportion of the industry — about 99%. However, Intelligent Links are growing, and they’re growing fast. The median growth rate in Intelligent Links since 2013 is 5 times larger than that of Old School (159% Vs. 30.4%), and there are many new link providers with very few link results, but colossal growth rates. We think this indicates an inflection point leading to a time in which Intelligent Links will eventually match Old School Links in market proportion.intelligent

Across the Industries

Intelligent Links love music. In 2016 providers specializing in music accounted for 88.53% of the Intelligent Link industry. SmartURL accounts for a mass proportion of this data and naturally skews the results, but each industry is growing. We’ll talk more about this in our Industry breakdown.

industry-pie

Channel vs. Channel

We combined our domain searches with our favorite seven social media sites: Facebook, YouTube, Reddit, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest and Tumblr. We call these channels. Twitter was clearly the favorite channel in 2016.

Channel: One of the 7 social media platforms we chose. They host links in the Link Landscape, both Intelligent Links and Old School.

twitter

Twitter hosted more links than any other in 2016 with a total of about 35.5 million results. YouTube also hosted many of the links, but it paled in comparison with a total of 5.8 million. Twitter was the favorite channel for both Intelligent and Old School providers.

Twitter’s 2016 victory appears to be a recent phenomena though, as YouTube was the victor for each year prior (again for both Intelligent and Old School providers) all the way back to 2013. Twitter found a massive growth of about 700% from 2015 to 2016.

Industry Analysis

It’s practically impossible for us to measure the number of links specifically pointing to pages containing books, or music, or any content matter at all — there’s just too many links out there for us to look at every one (if you can find a way, let us know). But what we can do is measure the overall web presence in results for providers with primary functions in each industry. So for instance, if we know a provider offers a large portion of their services to book links, we can measure the growth of that company as a evidence for growth in that industry.

Books

In books we followed 10 providers: A-FWD, Authl.it, BookGoodies, BookLinker, books2read, BookShow.me, EBK, Genius Link, Linkredirector and relinks.

Genius Link is the industry leader here, providing 86% of the links in the combined market totalling 86,282 links. Do note though that (like with many of the industry specific providers) Genius Link provides services in other industries too — such as music.

Genius Link results have grown by a median 84% each year. But BookLinker — the second largest in the group and powered by Genius Link — appears to be growing quickly as well with a median growth rate of 135% per year.

The state of the book industry can be characterized by its growth. We only found 13,168 results for the book providers we searched in 2013. However the industry has on average, doubled every year since 2013, and the 2016 results were 100,282 — that’s 612% growth over the 4 years.

book-pie

There are multiple providers with very low total link numbers but high growth rates. A-FWD, Authl.it and Books2Read experienced some of the highest growth rates in the industry. Authl.it for example, approached 586% in 2014,

How Does a Link Help Sell Books?

International demand for books presents authors and anyone selling a book with a perpetual problem: “How do I effectively sell books to worldwide customers?” Intelligent Links offer a handy solution with Link Translation.

Amazon alone has 14 unique international storefronts including sites in both Germany (amazon.de) and France (amazon.fr). Link Translation redirects customers to the appropriate storefront based on their unique data, and provides analytics for tracking and further optimization.

Book links often find themselves on Youtube. Youtube accounted for the most book results every year since 2013. The number of book links hosted on YouTube increased by 23% from 2014 to 2015 and has been increasing by similar proportions each year. Let’s not forget about the runner-up though. Pinterest came in second place in each year since 2014.

Music

We studied nine link providers we determined to have a focus in music: Flyt, Found.ee, Genius Link, Linkredirector, retargetlinks, SmartURL, TheGenesis and Toneden.

music-pie

In 2016 providers of Intelligent Music Links accounted for 3.9 million results. SmartURL and Linkfire led the music industry with a wide margin assuming a combined 96% of the market in 2016. Genius Link dominates third place, but the remaining 7 providers are engaged in a close battle for 4th place. The market for Intelligent Links has grown by 1403% since 2013. Yeah, that’s a lot. March and June make up most of 2016’s growth. The remaining months found growth equaling less than half of that in March.

Interesting to note is Linkfire’s growth— relative to SmartURL. In 2016, Linkfire’s monthly growth rate increased by 337% while SmartURL’s only increased by 58%. SmartURL’s growth is slowing, while Linkfire’s growth increases, rapidly.

Melomaniacs love choice. Multiple Intelligent link providers give music-lovers the choices they crave through interstitial linking — or the ability to redirect customers to an intermediary page, which presents them with further options. Let’s say, for example, you’re feeling a bit nostalgic, a perpetual tune echos through your thoughts: “Never gonna give you up.” With an interstitial Intelligent Link, you navigate to Rick Astley’s fan page and click “listen to song.” At that point you would be prompted with an intermediary page, delivered by an interstitial Intelligent Link. The link would present you with several other links pointing to streaming services such as Spotify, Pandora, or whichever service you choose to stream his glorious work.

Music lovers are also YouTube lovers: YouTube hosted the most Intelligent Links for Music from 2013 to 2015. However, Twitter returned 43% more book results than YouTube in 2016.

Products

In our product analysis we included four providers: A-FWD, ClickMeter, Genius Link, and Prourls.

We found Products to be the smallest and most concentrated industry in terms of Google search results. Genius Link accounted for more than 97% of product link results each year. In 2016 the top two providers, (Genius Link, and Prourls) accounted for 97.08% and 1.29% respectively. The remaining two providers accounted for less than 2% of the market.

product-pie

The industry also had the fewest number of providers, compared to books, content, and music. Overall, the industry has grown by over 600% since 2013 and has grown each year a median of 83%. Products haven’t caught up to other industries in the Link Landscape (books, content and music) but the industry is growing rapidly. We think it’ll be another big player soon.

So Why Do I Need Intelligent Links?

Product links help marketers sell products — surprise! A common use for Intelligent Links is to partner them with the Amazon Associates program —  A-FWD and Prourls both do this. Genius Link offers integration with Amazon Associates, but with more focus on the global aspect of the program. Genius Link also provides the flexibility to support other e-commerce product platforms like Google Play, Microsoft, and iTunes.

When it comes to product marketing, YouTube is clearly the go-to channel for sharing these Intelligent Links. We found more links from these product providers on YouTube than any other channel each year. As more product review videos pop up, we predict this amount will grow significantly, year over year.

Content

We analyzed the content industry based on 10 providers: Budurl, ClickMagick, clk.im, Hive, LinkIs, qlk.to, retargetlinks.com, retargetmore, snip.ly and Splitter

Leadership in content links is much more concentrated than other industries. In 2015 LinkIs held just over 90% of all results. This hasn’t always been the case though. In 2013 three providers accounted for a combined 90% of all results with each growing yearly.

The industry more than tripled each year from 2013 to 2015 (this is largely a function of the growth of the top three providers: LinkIs, budurl and snip.ly), and has grown from just under 8,000 in 2013 to over 235,000 in 2016. Strangely though, this growth hasn’t been consist. In 2015 there were 316,191 results, while 2016 only accounted for 235,067 — that’s a decrease of about 26%.

content-pie

If you haven’t already noticed a binding theme in the content pie charts, that’s okay. Leadership and growth in content links provided us with a motley list of stats to report. The commonality across the content market was its variance. If you take a look at the pies, you’ll noticed that leadership was split almost evenly in 2013. LinkIs accounted for the biggest share of the pie with 35.93%, but in second and third place were budurl and snip.ly with 29.63% and 25.64% respectively. LinkIs quickly took hold though and gained market share rapidly until they reached 90.18% in 2015.

However, in 2016 LinkIs began to loosen their grip over the industry, dropping down to 79.92% share while Snip.ly increased to 12.73%. The variance here is evidence for a competitive market and suggests that each leader may be intentionally designing their efforts in competing against the other. The volatility could also just be a correlation to the industry’s size: smaller industries with many competitors are often much more volatile than highly saturated counterparts.

A Note About The Industry

It’s not only numbers that differentiate the content industry. The content industry is fundamentally different from each of the others. It consists of providers who don’t offer any evidence for a particular specialization (such as books or the other industries we analyzed). The industry’s most notable Intelligent Link feature is the ability to add retargeting pixels directly into a link.

Retargeting pixels help to market ads specifically to user who are already familiar with your content by retargeting ads to users who have already visited your site. Repeat visitors much more likely to make online purchases.

Twitter hosted the most results in the content industry, and consistently grew over the 4 years we tracked.

Old School Shorteners

We determined 17 providers to be of the Old School class: Ad Fly, Bit.ly, Facebook, Google, Hootsuite, Hubspot, Is Good, Kochava, Post, StumbleUpon, TapStream, Tiny CC, Tiny URL, Trim, Unified and WordPress. You may notice some familiar names here (Facebook, Google WordPress). “Old School” link shorteners are often byproducts of larger services.

Old school are links which provide shortening services, but little else. Although they are limited in functionality, they make up 99% of the link services market. That’s 459 million Old school and only 4.2 million Intelligent Links.

bitly

Which brings us to Bit.ly. Bit.ly is the gargantuan of both the overall Link Landscape and the Old School portion specifically.

If you measure the link shortening industry as a whole, you’re really measuring Bit.ly’s dynamic — as Bit.ly accounts for over 55% of the 459 million results and the industry trends generally follow a close correlation to those of Bit.ly.

old-school-pie

The remaining top providers include: Hootsuite, Facebook and Google, who hold a combined 42% of the market and have maintained relatively consistent market shares year over year.

It’s tough to compare Old School and Intelligent providers directly to each other because they’re proportionally so different. However, what we can do is take a look at “amzn.to”, a custom domain powered by Bit.ly, for Amazon, and compare it to similarly sized Intelligent Links.

i-vs-os-amzn-to

Bit.ly’s “amzn.to” still holds a massive lead, and this is just one of their links — not even the largest one. This illustrates just how much real estate Bit.ly holds in the Link Landscape. However different in size, it does share an interesting similarity with Intelligent Links.

Following the same trend as in the music industry, Twitter was the favorite channel for both Old School and Intelligent Links in 2016. However, in every year prior, both Intelligent and Old School providers favored YouTube.

Intelligent Links Have a Bright Future

There were some interesting and enigmatic growth trends in 2016 causing the greater Link Landscape to grow more than any other year. Music is the largest sub industry, but the Landscape is dynamic and each industry growing rapidly. Old school make up the vast majority of the Greater Link Landscape, but Intelligent Links are currently growing faster than their Old School counterparts. More people are beginning to use Intelligent Links than ever before.

Some More Notes About Our Data

As we mentioned, our data isn’t a perfect measure of all Link Provider’s growth or size. But we do think correlates to these metrics. We took the Google results we mentioned, created a relational database with them, and fed them to Tableau to perform our analysis, and we used each provider’s monthly median to calculate the results for December of 2016.

We’ve been working on this for a bit, so our data set was missing results data for December of 2016. We decided that the median results for each month in 2016 before December would be the best way to approximate. Median results hold a close relationship to December results in each year prior to 2016. We encourage you to come up with a better way to approximate monthly data and let us know!

Check out Sweet Tooth’s article on repeat customers. We referenced it in our Content Industry section. Finally, you can download our source sheets here if you’re interested in seeing the numbers for yourself!

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