Over the weekend, social news site Digg changed how its links work in a way that gives the site an increase in the number of users who visit.
Users of the site's URL-shortening service noticed that if the Web address they had shortened had been submitted to Digg, the shortened URL would then take its visitors to the story's page on Digg instead of the page it linked to. At least it was this way for users who were not logged into Digg; registered users who had turned off the DiggBar (and who had a recent log-in cookie from Digg) would not see the change in behavior.
This may seem like a small change, but it's a big knock on Digg's shortening service, and for Digg's credibility at maintaining features.
Introduced in early April, the DiggBar was originally intended as a service that did three things: one was to shorten links and act as a redirection tool. The second was to bring Digg features along for the ride with a framed bar that would appear on the top of the page and provide a simple way to view user comments, related stories, as well as other Dugg items from that same site. The third was to provide a simpler way for users to publish content, either to Digg itself, or places like Facebook, Twitter, and e-mail. This included giving users the capability to shorten a URL by dropping a Digg.com/ in front of the site's address.
Despite the bevvy of features compared to some competing URL-shortening services, both users and publishers alike found fault in the DiggBar. Users had problems with the service since it drastically hid information about the site they were on, including the URL in their browser's address bar, and any bookmarks they saved, which would retain the DiggBar. For publishers, there was the worry that users would choose to comment back on Digg instead of on their own pages, as well as SEO damage from search engines not properly indexing and attributing traffic since Digg.com was the redirector.
Digg's solution, which came just two weeks after the DiggBar launch, was to make the whole DiggBar experience something users had to opt-in to see. This meant that registered users of the site would only see shortened Digg URLs, and the DiggBar by choice. Stray visitors of Digg wouldn't see either.
In effect this left the DiggBar as something power users could take advantage of, but that casual users would never see--reducing the entire DiggBar feature down to URL shortening.
This clearly wasn't good enough for Digg, since this move nets the site more ad impressions and unique user tracks than it would by acting as a redirection service alone. Back when it was originally introduced, the company was able to get by since the DiggBar displayed ads when people were using certain features such as viewing related content, Digg user comments, and other stories from that site's particular source. But, without the DiggBar on top, and without any kind of recognition--other than in name, Digg was getting none of these benefits.
So is Digg's shortening service now just a way to shorten links to Digg.com pages? Digg founder Kevin Rose went on to say as much in a Sunday night appearance on Leo Laporte's This Week in Tech, citing that the company was having to internally juggle certain shortened-URLs that had become popular from outside sources. Particularly, ones from Twitter where the source site would be on the receiving end of an increasing amount of traffic, but because of the lack of a Digg frame bar on the top of the page, it wasn't easy for users to Digg the story without having to make their way back to Digg.com.
The solution, was to change the link to kick users to the Digg.com story page, as if they had found their way there naturally. However, this caused confusion for users since that page would only show up when clicking from Twitter, and not when clicking that link from another domain. Digg's fix to that problem? Homogenization. All shortened Digg links simply go to Digg pages, as long as the story's been submitted. Otherwise, the URLs send users to the source site, which prompts the question if it's worth submitting a story to Digg, since it can rot a link that thousands of people may be using.
Making big money on small URLs
Digg's departure from providing parts of its shortening service could be a good signal of where the URL-shortening service is headed. Turning big URLs into small ones is not difficult, however maintaining these services indefinitely, and at no cost, is a challenge.
The easiest option is interstitial ads--the kind users need to wait through, or click a certain link to bypass on their way to the source content. Digg has effectively done that by forcing users to come through Digg on their way to the content. The big difference in Digg's case is that users who might have gone to Digg for shortening can simply go elsewhere that does not put advertising on the page, or require an extra click from users.
So could this mean Digg is working on a paid variant on its shortening service that gives either users or content owners the option to pay to get that direct-level of service? Possibly. It could also mean Digg simply realized it was footing the bill for a service that was bypassing the very pages that were keeping it afloat.
The bigger problem, it seems, is that Digg listens too closely to its users and critics instead of staying on course. Digg URLs should have always come with a frame bar on top. It may have been annoying to some, but that was the price of admission. If users wanted a straight-up URL-shortener, there were hundreds available at the time when Digg unveiled its own. The one killer feature was the fact that it took the Digg community along for the ride, which is so clearly far removed from people using it that Digg has chosen to go this route instead.
Based on a long history of changing things its users do not like, it's possible the company will revert to the old way of handling shortened links. However, Digg has made no mention of the change on either its public-facing blogs or on the company's Twitter account. While this could just be a slow start after a big weekend of activity, it could also signal some internal debate on what's best for the longevity of the service. I just hope Digg takes a step back and looks at what it offered to begin with, since the current service is such a shadow of its former self.
Update: A Digg representative has told me that we should be getting an update on the new link behavior sometime Tuesday.