In emails I receive, and in your tips here, I often see web addresses that include things like goo.gl and bit.ly. What are these? Are they safe? They look awfully suspicious!
We can't promise that any specific URLs are particularly safe, but these kinds of URLs on their own aren't any more dangerous than any other URL you might click on. But what are they?
As you know, many URLs can be lengthy (try looking in the browser’s URL bar when you shop on Amazon.com, for example—the URL is long, like this: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1478242779/ref=s9_simh_gw_p14_d4_i6?pf_rd_m=ATVPDKIKX0DER&pf_rd_s=center-5&pf_rd_r=18WZHRTY70743PVFH8JM&pf_rd_t=101&pf_rd_p=470938731&pf_rd_i=507846/. If you want to send someone a URL in an email message, it’s possible the URL will wrap with line breaks so that the recipient can’t simply click on it to navigate to the correct site. Or, you might want to send a URL in a tweet, or in a text message, both of which have character limits.
To work around this problem, several different sites have created URL shorteners, which maintain an internal list of the original URLs along with a custom “short” URL that redirects to the same site. You can easily create a shortened URL from any long URL, using the services provided at http://goo.gl (a service provided by Google) or http://bit.ly (to name just a few). In each case, you can navigate to one of those sites, type in the long URL, and the site will provide you with a corresponding short URL for use in emails, tweets, or texts (or printed articles, like these tips).
Several URL-shortening sites also provide browser add-ins to make it easier to shorten URLs. If you add the goo.gl URL Shortener add-in (http://goo.gl/ygGS6) to Chrome, and you can then shorten URLs directly from the browser without having to navigate to a new site to do the job. You can find similar URL shortener add-ins for other browsers and other sites, as well.
One final issue: the original question asked if these shortened URLs are safe. As we said, clicking them is as safe as clicking any other URL (that is, not very safe), but there’s an added risk: Because the shortened URLs really don’t give you any indication of where they’ll take you, you need to be wary before clicking one from an unknown source. We find the Google Chrome add-in named Expand useful (http://goo.gl/7QmbJ). This add-in allows you to hover over a shortened link, and see the full URL before you click on the shortened URL. This seems like a good idea to us: Verify that the shortened URL goes somewhere you trust before you click on it.
It’s easy to create and use shortened URLs, and although you should be wary of any URL, you should be extra wary of shortened URLs (because they conceal the ultimate target address)—use a tool like the Expand add-in to check out the URL before clicking it.