Monday, November 19, 2007

Spot the flaw (there must be one)

In my latest bid to become rich before I'm 30 40 50 ...

The problem: URLs, especially those based on a back-end database, can become long and unwieldy. For instance, gets you the complete works of me as known to Amazon, including
Online Information 93: 17th International Online Information Meeting Proceedings London 7-9 December 1993 and Online Information Hong Kong: The 2nd Asian Information Meeting, which resolutely refuse to sell out no matter how hard I try.

But it doesn't really trip off the tongue, does it?

The A solution: tinyurl is your friend. You enter a massive, unwieldy URL like the above and get a nice small one to show all your friends, reproduce in publications etc. In this case that would be

Some magazines, like Focus, gladly use tinyurl already. Organisations with a more proprietorial attitude still prefer to use their own URLs, because no matter how unwieldy (say) the above URL is, it still points you at the Amazon site. A tinyurl URL could take you anywhere, and you wouldn't know until you got there.

Ben's solution: why can't the two be combined? Why can't there be a package sitting on a web server that encodes the URLs in something short and alphanumeric - just five characters long would give you a range of 60466176 entries, which might not be much by Amazon standards but will do fine for most of us - and puts them after the root URL? Thus in bencode the above could be rendered Companies don't have to use a third party, they control their URLs and the customer goes straight to their web site.

This seems so obvious that I can't believe someone hasn't tried it, and that being so, it seems so useful that the only reason you don't see it everywhere is that it doesn't work. So, what's wrong with it?


  1. Tinyurl is not recommended for use on websites since it links to material which you know nothing about. In the winblows world this could include malware and viruses. For this reason such a solution wouldn't be widely accepted until a secure operating system has a majority market share. If Windows remains the majority market share system 50 may be a bit optimistic.

  2. Tinyurls are all over the Guardian, and they annoy me, especially when they say '10 ways to improve your love life' (or composting skills, or whatever it is you might want to improve) and then give you a tinyurl. You've got no idea where they're taking you, whereas I'd probably trust your 'everything by me on Amazon' tinyurl. So I think bencode is a bloody marvellous idea.

  3. david webster3:53 pm

    As far as I know, each BenURL would have to have its own web page, with either a HTTP or a meta redirect to the page you in fact wanted.

    While quite easy, you would end up with lots of 3-line files cluttering up your neatly arranged site structure. I think.

  4. Actually David that wouldn't be necessary. If the url was something like "" then a scrip on the home page could check if the varible "id" is set and if so look it up in a database and find the equivalent long url.

    I think ben means something like this on the server side rather than the client, with somewhere like amazon implementing a system on their site, and only linking to pages on their site, therefore trusted. The main reason it does not exist may be to do with how dynamic sites like amazon are. Their pages are always changing in hugely complex ways.

    The best way I can see this being implimentented (and making your fortune) is to write some code that a site wanting to use the system would put on every page. Somewhere on every page would be a button like "generate short url". When clicked it would make a string like "abcde", link it to the url in the site's interal database and output the small url to the user. Then when the user navigates to the short url they are directed to the original page. Of course there would be checkes to make sure that only the sites domain could be linked to.

  5. Yay, semicolon! Thanks, I was awaiting your expert input. You've got the idea of what I had in mind. Getting the user to generate their own BenURL (thanks to David for the mandatory capitalisation that goes with any software product nowadays) is a good step; letting the user choose generally is.

    My ideas + your technical knowledge and business contacts will be a winning combination. We'll split the profits 70-30, as you're young and will only spend all the money otherwise.

  6. rats, i get here late and all the good advice has been given already.
    i love tinyurl but it's true that it can annoy you if you don't know where it's taking you. the solution is to tell the reader where it's going but still provide the tinyurl. this makes sense with a newspaper because it can give you the information and yet you still only have to type in a small url. i often ask friends to tinyurl a link if they're telling it to me over the phone etc.

    my other small point was, like semicolon said, amazon change their links regularly and in complex ways, which can be frustrating 'cos it means that in a few months (if that) none of those links now on your blog will work at all. dumb amazon.

  7. And when you've made your millions from BenURL, you can use them to set up a search engine called AskJeapes.

  8. Just how long have you been saving that up for?

  9. John B5:44 am

    Who says companies want to use short URLs? Often the web sites wants you to go back to their web site to search again for the long URL so that you have to view the advertising links again.

  10. You might have it ... except that I just tune the adverts out. I may not be an ideal customer.


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