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Digg: The New URL-shorteneing System is Here to Stay

July 21, 2009

After two days of silence, Digg has gone on the record to officially acknowledge the change in how its shortened links are redirected, as well as clear up how links will be handled in the future.

The change, which took place on Sunday, had links leading directly to a story source redirecting to Digg’s story pages. The new behavior only appeared on stories that had been submitted to the site, leading to confusion on where users would go when they clicked on a shortened Digg URL.

In a post on Digg’s company blog, CEO Jay Adelson explained that the new way of handling shortened URLs would remain. As a concession to early adopters, Digg URLs created before Tuesday would continue to link directly to the source. But going forward, all new links will retain the newer behavior of redirecting to Digg story pages, unless the page had never been submitted as a story, or if the viewer was registered and logged in to Digg.com.

Despite how the the DiggBar and integrated shortening service were introduced to users earlier this year, Adelson said Digg never wanted to end up as a URL service provider.

“Our strategy with Digg short URLs is to facilitate sharing of Digg content, not to be a conventional redirection service,” Adelson said. Digg founder Kevin Rose had said something along the same lines in a Sunday night appearance on Leo Laporte’s This Week in Tech.

Some sites weren’t pleased to have their content framed around Digg stats and blocked the service. Digg capitulated and did a full redirect for non-logged in users, so people who don’t use Digg were simply sent to the underlying site. Everyone seemed happy with the service from that point on.

Except Digg, it seems. The tool was no longer sending new users to the Digg.com site, since those users didn’t see the Digg wrapper when they clicked on the URL. The changes noted last Sunday reversed how non-Digg users were treated. Instead of a redirect to the original URL they are sent to the Digg story about that URL. Effectively a bait and switch.

Digg founder Kevin Rose, fresh back from vacation, wasn’t aware of the change to the service. He Twittered out links to some pictures using the DiggBar link and was surprised to see the story auto-submitted to Digg. He followed up asking people to bury the story, and then Twittered once more saying he “was not aware” of the change. And then just to add to the confusion, he Twittered yet again that he did know of the change, he just didn’t know when it was being rolled out.

DiggBar is no longer going to be described as a URL shortening service, we’ve heard, and Digg intends to make these new changes permanent. We’ve also heard that they will treat old links created with the DiggBar under the old rules to avoid being accused of hijacking that traffic to their own site.

These changes aren’t all that meaningful on their own. But it does show that Digg isn’t interested in competing with Bit.ly and other services that are seeing massive data flows from useful URL shortening services. The fact that Bit.ly intends to compete head on with Digg via those data flows isn’t non-trivial. Two days ago I thought Digg would realize this and quickly reverse the policy changes. But I was wrong. Digg does fully realize the competitive landscape. But it seems they don’t care to compete in the short URL space. Instead, they are going to grab the short term traffic benefits from redirecting these URLs to their home page.

So far, the change has resulted in a lot of user distrust. Many people who used the service to shorten URLs have vowed never to use it again, while others simply chided the company for changing the behavior of links without first alerting users. Digg has caved to unhappy users in the past, but this change has more to do with Digg’s business model than previous feature changes.

The DiggBar remains one of the company’s most controversial features. While fervent users continue to use the service, it was initially a big turnoff for many publishers and casual users. Along with the structure of user comments, the DiggBar has endured a lot of changes since its inception, having had much of its functionality made optional after users and critics alike bashed its operating methods.

Still, the change in URL behavior serves several important purposes in moving Digg forward as a business. One is to get more page views and boost unique user counts from people who must first visit Digg’s story pages before visiting the source story. Another is to grow user adoption of the DiggBar, since using it preserves the old way of clicking on links and going directly to the source.

Whether Digg will continue to change its functionality in order to push users toward enabling the DiggBar remains to be seen.

That seems shortsighted to me, and it is certainly not the best user experience. But Digg is clearly looking to become profitable this year. Sometimes the users suffer somewhat as tough choices are made.

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