Shortened URLs Tips and Tricks

url-shorten-serviceThe shortened URLs produced by services such as bit.ly and TinyURL are convenient, but they can also be used to hide the identity of malicious sites.

Fortunately, there are several ways to peek behind a shortened URL to see exactly where the link will take you — BEFORE you click it!

In fact, almost every URL-shortening service offers one or more ways to preview the real destination of a shortened link.  This article will focus on bit.ly and TinyURL.

bit.ly

Here’s a typical bit.ly URL which I created.

http://bit.ly/fkgbh0

All it does is take you to http://www.weather.com/forecast/, but there’s no way to know that in advance — it’s a concealed link.

Let’s say that you don’t trust me, so you want to see where the link really goes before you click it.

It’s easy!  All you have to do is copy the link, paste it into the address bar of any browser window or tab, and add a plus sign to the end, like this:

http://bit.ly/fkgbh0+

Adding a plus sign to the end of any bit.ly URL brings you to a special bit.ly page that shows you information about the link, including the full, expanded URL. Using the information on that bit.ly page, you can decide whether the link is safe and worth following.

TinyURL

TinyURL has a similar option. But instead of adding a plus sign at the end of a link, you prepend the word preview. For example, here’s a TinyURL link to http://www.weather.com/forecast/:

http://tinyurl.com/2beo7jc

Copy that link into the address bar of your browser and add the word preview:

http://preview.tinyurl.com/2beo7jc

Now the link will bring you to a preview page that displays the full, expanded URL.

TinyURL also offers a cookie-based option that makes previewing automatic for every TinyURL link you click. To set the (harmless!) preview cookie on your browser, click here:

http://tinyurl.com/preview.php?enable=1

Other URL-shortening Services

All the major URL-shortening services have similar ways of letting you preview what’s behind their URLs. Security researcher Joshua Long has compiled an excellent free guide, “How to preview shortened URLs (TinyURL, bit.ly, is.gd, and more).” See: http://bit.ly/e3eLnX

Of course, if you’re checking lots of links, it can be clunky to manually copy, paste, and edit URLs. Several sites offer automated scripts to make things a bit easier. For example, when you encounter a suspicious short URL, you can click to http://LongURLplease.com/ or http://ExpandMyURL.com.

Paste the suspect short URL into these sites’ dialog boxes, and they’ll show you the full, expanded link.

You also can Favorite or Bookmark those sites to further automate the process of link-checking.

Browser Add-Ons

Going a step further, Firefox users can install the bit.ly preview add-on (http://bit.ly/i0qRJy) to allow previewing of short URLs without needing to leave the page you’re on. Despite the name, the add-on works for many URL-shorteners — not just bit.ly.

Chrome users can download a similar extension for that browser (http://bit.ly/euijFQ).

Note that this level of link-checking usually isn’t needed when you’re clicking on normal links from sites and people you know and trust.  But it’s smart to be wary of suspicious links or links with unknown provenance.

When in doubt, check it out!

Credit: Fred Langa

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Published in: on November 26, 2010 at 2:55 pm  Comments (6)  

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6 CommentsLeave a comment

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