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How to Use the Intertubes, Part 1: Links

Keep 'em short and sweet

I would like to introduce myself. When you click over to ABA Birding News and send a comment or a question, I'm the guy who gets it. Since mid-August I've received nearly 1,000 messages from people reporting glitches, making suggestions (thank you!), or offering praise (double thank you!). So—having now introduced myself—I would like to share some of what I've learned, and offer some suggestions as to how you can get the most out of using the internet to enhance your birding.

By far, the number one problem being reported at the moment is broken links—URLs that are copied and pasted into the body of an email message. Here's what happens:

Let's take the very worst offender, Google Maps, as an example. If you place a pin on a Google map of a rare bird sighting, for example, the link that you end up pasting in your email message will come out looking like this:,-88.172836&spn=0.013416,0.025706&z=15&iwloc=0004cc6f1ef18c9f5ae77&source=embed

Note what happened here. The web application we use to run this blog (TypePad) considers the question mark used in the URL to be punctuation that ends a sentence, therefore a line-break is allowed. Many email programs do the same, and the result is that the link is broken when you send it.

But there is a very simple way to ensure that this never happens. On the Google Maps page, instead of copying the link from the address bar in your browser, click the link icon in the Google Maps tools.


In the screen shot above, the red arrow labeled #1 points to the link tool in Google Maps. Clicking it will open the dialog box seen to the right of the icon. Note the "Short URL" check-box (red arrow #2). Click it! The result will be a very short and friendly URL you can safely use anywhere.

Flickr presents us with the same challenge as Google Maps, but just for fun throws in a twist. In addition to having unwieldy-long URL strings, Flickr uses the "@" symbol as well. This poses a problem for us when we make list archives available to the public. We want to keep spammers from harvesting email addresses in the emails posted at Birding News, and we do this by replacing the "@" symbol with " AT " to keep robot phishing attempts from recognizing email addresses.

Because Flickr also uses this symbol in their URLs, we wind up breaking the address string. We also use our own link shortening scheme, but if the link is broken, it only recognizes the first half (this, by the way, is something we are working on handling at the moment). But Flickr too, offers a short link:


When sharing a link to a Flickr photo in an email, always click the "Share" button in the tool bar and use the shortened link. It's easy, and everyone will love you for it.

Link shortening should be simply "what you do" when you share links via email. There's no reason not to, and every reason to use shortened URLs. Some might call this "best practices", but I tend to shy away from corporate mumbo-jumbo-speak … it's just what you should do.

But what about links to sites that don't offer link shortening? Google offers a link shortener at, as does TinyURL, but the best is Bitly.

In addition to shortening URLs as the others above, with a Bitly account (free), you can install a plugin for your browser that allows you to shorten any URL, just as easy as using Flickr or Google Maps. It places a little Bitly button next to your address bar, which when clicked (#1)…


… gives you all kinds of options, in a very simple pop-up dialog. Clicking the Bitly button will shorten the URL of whatever page you are looking at. Simply click the short URL (#2), and it automatically copies the link. Now you can paste it in your email. That's it!

Bitly offers other options, such as saving the shortened URL, sharing it on Facebook and more that we'll get to in another installment of How to Use the Intertubes.

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Greg Neise

Greg Neise

Web Development at American Birding Association
Greg Neise developed his interests in birds, photography and conservation as a youngster growing up in Chicago, across the street from Lincoln Park Zoo. At the age of 13, he worked alongside Dr. William S. Beecher, then Director of the Chicago Academy of Sciences and a pioneering ornithologist, and learned to photograph wildlife, an interest that developed into a career supplying images for magazines, newspapers, institutions and books, including National Geographic (print, web and television), Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times, Boston Globe, Nature, Lincoln Park Zoo, Miami Zoo, Jacksonville Zoo, The Field Museum and a host of others. He has served as President of the Rainforest Conservation Fund, a volunteer organization dedicated to preserving the world's tropical rainforests. Greg is a web developer for the ABA, and of course, a fanatical birder.
Greg Neise

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  • Thanks, Greg! As a serial offender, I’ve been trying to remember to tiny my url’s, but a bitly button sounds like the solution.

  • RH in CT

    Just to cover the other side of the coin…

    The down side to using a URL-shortening service is that nobody following the link can be certain where it is taking them. They can be used by nasty people to put links to nastier stuff for the innocent to follow. I know people who protect themselves by simply never following any link that is not clearly to a destination that makes sense.

  • I consider myself pretty internet savvy and I didn’t know about the googlemaps shortener. That’s a life-saver.

  • Kent Fiala

    Do you have reason to believe that spammers have not yet discovered the ” AT ” for “@” trick after all these years? They are pretty clever people, and I suspect that the ruse has long since outlived its usefulness and is now nothing but an inconvenience to honest people. Personally, I use javascript to hide email addresses.

  • The bitly site just became my new friend when posting to listservs! Thanks Greg!

  • That’s true, they can … but in birding listervs they are pretty obvious. I’ve never seen a spammer take the time to write a believable message that included shortened links. Usually, it’s something like “You gotta see this!”

  • Not really … but it seems that they haven’t (though, as you point out, I don’t know why).

    But the bigger reason for doing it the way we have is that people expect it. We will probably be moving to a sort of mailto: shortener (as we have done with links over 30 characters) in the future.

  • Tyler D Funk

    Good information. Now if I can only
    remember it after a night of sleep!

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