Tracking Website Traffic from Twitter

September 1, 2011

In July, Twitter added a new feature useful for both users of the micro blogging service, as well as website owners interested in tracking traffic sources—t.co link shortening service.

Added Convenience for Twitter Users

While link shortening services, such as bit.ly, are indispensible for users of services such as Twitter, since it’s possible to find URLs longer than the service’s 140-character limit, there are downsides. One of these is security, since any URL can be hiding behind an inviting bit/ly link, including SPAM and phishing websites.

To counter this problem, organizations have begun offering their own shortening domains, such as The New York Time’s ‘nyti.ms,’ as powered by Bit.ly’s Pro service. Any link to content on the ‘nyti.ms’ domain should be safe.

Unfortunately, not every website offers custom link shortening domain, so most users are forced to use link shortening services like bit.ly, tinyURL, or Google’s goo.gl. Many Internet users don’t trust these anonymous shortened URLs, so Twitter offers “to better protect users from malicious sites that engage in spreading malware, phishing attacks, and other harmful activity” by checking “against a list of potentially dangerous sites.” How is this going to work? According to the Twitter Help Center’s About Twitter's Link Service page:

  • Links shared on Twitter.com will be shortened to a http://t.co link.
  • You’ll see the message “link will appear shortened” next to the Tweet button; however, these links will display the site that a link directs to, instead of a t.co URL.
  • All links included in Direct Message notification emails already pass through the link service and are converted to a http://t.co link.
  • Please note: t.co links are neither private nor public. Anyone with the link will be able to view the content.

You can continue to use an alternate link shortening service, such as bit.ly, with Twitter, though any link shorter than nineteen characters will still be shortened with a t.co URL, and the original will be displayed as the link text. This sounds a bit more confusing than it is, and is better explained in the Twitter Help Center's How to Post Links (URLs) article. While Twitter is touting increased safety, the major offering to Twitter users will be convenience.

Tracking Website Incoming Links from Twitter

For website owners interested in measuring the influence of Twitter through the number of incoming links, the convenience of using t.co for shortening is quickly obvious. Since t.co links only come from tweets, as opposed to conventional shortened links which could be shared via web pages, emails, or other social networks such as facebook or Linkedin, any such links are easily recognized in website analytics.

Up until now, Twitter users clicked through to websites either from the Twitter website (with twitter.com as the referrer), or from a desktop/mobile client, in which there was no referral website (assuming a link shortening service was not used). Now, traffic all Twitter segments will be seen as one.

For the initial rollout of the service, Twitter was only wrapping URLs of nineteen characters or longer. Since then, the number of characters has decreased (as seen below in a wrapped eighteen character ow.ly link, with t.co URL added for reference, both highlighted in red).

According to the Twitter Developer Blog, “Eventually, all URLs will be wrapped regardless of length; we'll let you know more details on those dates well in advance.”