Shifting Sands Are Shafting Brands

I had a lovely vacation, and returned with a couple of lovely thoughts about communicating from solid ground.

You know, the wise man built his house on the rock, the foolish man built his on sand (or wrote in the sky.)

While there are many facets and layers to this, they all boil down to one thing: do you own it?

Those of you on or domains, are building on someone else’s sand.

Those of you on Twitter and Facebook are building your reputation on someone elses’s sand.

And sand shifts.

Links and Trust

Image by pedrosz on Flickr

When the dunes move, they can tear down things you’ve built.

I made a decision a few months ago to build my own link shortener, using an open-source script that I housed on my own server space. (It’s not my physical server box in my house, but if I rent it and own the data, then I can export it. Not quite sand…)

At the time, there was much discussion about how link shorteners can be used to hide malware, and the issue of trust remains a big one with me. If you ever see an link out in the wild, you can rest assured that only two people might have created it. It was either me, or my friend Adam Daniel Mezei. You don’t have to worry about whether it was a malware link that someone foisted on me, that is automatically coming to infect you.

There is a larger trust factor involved too. I hesitated writing about this, but I had been consulting with my friends at the American Red Cross and the Centers for Disease Control for a while, discussing the benefits of having custom URL shorteners. In a major disaster or pandemic, there is a great benefit in knowing that the public health advice being offered is truly from a trusted source. (I didn’t write about this in the open, for fear that idiot speculators would jump out and grab all of the good obvious short URLs and hold the organizations hostage for a sale.) But seeing a shortened link with (or some variation) would carry a lot more merit, and people would be more inclined to act on it and share it.

Trust and Consistency Matter

Before you dismiss this, you need to understand how crucial the elements of trust and consistency are in a time of public confusion. When you see conflicting statements from organizations, it rapidly promotes inaction for the very people you are trying to help.

  • Do we save one gallons of water per person, or two?
  • Does frozen food stay frozen for 24 hours or 60?
  • Do we need food for one week or three?

After a while, it is too confusing to sort out, and paralysis ensues.

Imagine what the next big public health issue will look like. The Red Cross and the CDC — who have been very diligent about making their messages uniform. During disasters, the Red Cross works with FEMA for the same reasons.

But you know as well as I do that those messages will get drowned out by all of the well-meaning bloggers and contributors who dig up their old versions of documents, some of which were never right to begin with, and sharing them across the internet. In a major disaster, a large segment of the population will turn to Huffington Post and other high-traffic sites, and consider what they see there.

Which is why the branded link shortener can be so very important.

The Sand that Shifted

Yesterday, Twitter unveiled an upcoming feature, whereby all links in Tweets will be “wrapped” by a link with the domain.

When Twitter began, the default shortener was (the now gargantuan), then it switched to The difference now is that every link will apparently be washed through Twitter’s shortener service, and will appear as a

Twitter is offering a benefit, namely it will screen out the malware links which made trust an issue in the beginning. But I submit that it doesn’t solve the other trust issues remaining, and it leaves Twitter vulnerable. Now if a piece of malware does squeeze through, Twitter is indeed culpable because it has made the pledge to stop that. Also, there will be issues with false positives, and the possibility that really scummy Black Hat SEO types will figure out how to temporarily get their competitors on the Twitter black-list. will still work for me, but it now gives me no real advantage. And I would have to think that the and services that have been offering premium-level service to and and others will feel the pain. After all, why should the New York Times bother promoting a service that brands its links, if no one sees the branding.

Yes, it’s only Twitter for now. But consider:

  • Facebook has
  • Google has
  • WordPress has

That’s what you get when you build on sand. And that’s why I want to own as much of my data as I can, and you ought to as well.

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  1. As usual Ike, hit the nail squarely on the head. Just when we think we have our little corner of cyber space all set like we want it, something comes along and shakes things up causing our house of cards to tremble an fall down around us.
    What Twitter proposes to do will surely put a damper in personal url shortening services. The uniqueness that once was will be gone and we’ll begin to fade in with the masses once again. Not a pretty scenario, is it?

  2. Twitter seems to be bent on undermining all the API developers they enabled over the years. Let’s face it, Twitter would not even be around if it weren’t for all the third-party apps that actually allowed users to make the service meaningful, relevant and USEABLE. And how does Twitter thank all those app developers for keeping their product alive? With a sledge hammer to the head.

  3. Let’s shout this until we lose our voices: IF YOU DON’T OWN YOUR OWN DATA, YOU AIN’T GOT SQUAT!
    Good points.

  4. Ike, great post and I completely agree with your point (you can take the rest of the day off if you like).
    The issue of trust is critical and building on other sites must be thought through by an organization before they pull the trigger on their online efforts. Ready, fire, aim is rarely successful as we have seen.
    The topic of building on others sites has been on my mind a lot lately, especially with all the hullabaloo regarding fb and twitter and all their changes. Then I came across an article the other day about how you can build your business with the Yellow Pages. Obviously from a long time ago,  pre-Internet. It seems the creation of the internet allowed us another avenue to promote our businesses all by ourselves. The irony is it seems with fb, twitter, etc. we are slowly moving back to the days when the Yellow Pages dominated. The greatest difference,  back then there was only one yellow pages. Today, online, there are many.  Insert debate here.
    By the way, I noticed I could leave this comment by signing in with my twitter account. I didn’t.  hmm…

  5. Like the post Ike. Concerned about this change too. I wonder whether Twitter will provide decent stats to accompany the new URLs?
    As an aside, we’re currently looking for Social Media guest bloggers on our website. Send me an email if this is of interest 🙂
    Current social media posts:

  6. Doesn’t anybody actually read the stuff then editorialize on?
    Twitter is designing the API for this so that the domain isn’t actually visible to end users and your branded shortener is what will be visible in the UI.

    • Chris, I did read it. Here is the relevant section:

      When this is rolled out more broadly to users this summer, all links shared on or third-party apps will be wrapped with a URL. A really long link such as might be wrapped as for display on SMS, but it could be displayed to web or application users as or as the whole URL or page title. Ultimately, we want to display links in a way that removes the obscurity of shortened link and lets you know where a link will take you.

      Sounds to me like they are going to be all over the place on this, and inconsistent. If it gives users a choice on how they want it displayed in each instance, that is empowering and I would not complain. Many third-party apps already expand URLs and display the full version, and that is not inconsistent with my concerns about trust.

      If developers are getting a different set of facts or expectations from other API documentation, then Twitter is doing a very poor job of communicating that in this post. And given the next paragraph, which talks about how this is necessary for the upcoming Promoted Tweets platform, I am fairly certain this isn’t going to be a behind-the-scenes API-only issue.

  7. Twitter has given the world a way to do what everyone loves to do… GOSSIP. The only thing they haven`t figured out is how to monetize themselves. It`s true there are a lot of helpful twitter apps that make using twitter a lot easier to manage huge lists but does anybody really care… I agree if you don`t know where a link will take you, you`re asking for trouble!!!

  8. Great post Ike. You raise so many good points about inherent trustworthiness of URLs. Thanks for making us all think about the long-term impacts of this stuff.

  9. I think Chris is right, Ike.  You’ll primarily see in SMS, if at all.  Your URLs will still come through.
    A few relevant entries from the dev forum:
    …our hope, honestly, is that final users never have to see — we
    want to provide enough data back to developers so they can create URLs that
    look like:

    <a href=”“></a>
    all those URLs should still show through.

    • Eric, that’s great if that is the case; but I fear Twitter is doing a horrible job of explaining it.

      And fundamentally, it doesn’t change the tenor of my post. That we are all giving up more control than we like (or even like to think about) when we build brand equity on someone else’s virtual real estate.

  10. As usual, you’re brilliant! We always tell clients to stop worrying about how many fans they have on Facebook or how many followers they have on Twitter and, instead, focus on how they can bring all of their communities to a place they own. Social media, as we know it, won’t exist in three years. What happens then?

    • Gini, you are too kind.

      I do believe what we call “social media” will still exist in three years, but we won’t talk about it being anything special. I will never bet on any particular platform as a lead-pipe cinch. Always own the landing.

  11. Great post! I work for a company that also uses a custom branded URL shortener through and will be rather annoyed if all those links get turned into I hope Eric has the right angle on this and won’t be displayed at all for most users.  But like you and Gini said, the real takeaway is shifting conversations and communities to the brand’s own site, where nobody can come along to yank the rug out from under the company’s feet.
    Twitter is great for building a sense of fun and personality for a brand, as is Facebook, but the ultimate goal should be to create that expectation and get customers interested in it–then encourage them to get engaged on the company’s own blog, forums, etc. Social media builds passion, but smart brands close the deal by bringing those passionate fans to their own communities.
    I see a lot of nonprofits relying heavily on Facebook fan pages to interact with supporters. That’s a dangerous thing for a donor-dependent organization, with Facebook’s history of suddenly changing fan pages–I mean “like” pages–around with little or no warning.


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  14. […] Pigott once observed that using social media and third-party sites (like can be like building on sand. All the work you put into something like your Facebook page can disappear in an […]