TinyURL.com: The next YouTube? Perhaps not $1.6B's worth, but...

By now, you're laughing your ass off. With the $1.

By now, you're laughing your ass off. With the $1.6B of Google's money that YouTube commanded, if you've ever even visted the simplistic and somewhat basic looking TinyURL.com (most haven't), you're probably thinking that David Berlind must have completely lost his mind.

I haven't.  

TinyURL is the next YouTube. In fact. It's better. It's a dream come true for the Madison avenue types whose Holy Grail has always been how to serve people with an advertisement at their moment of greatest need.

Here's a fact most people don't know. Advertisers that place ads in magazines actually aren't to crazy about magazine subscribers. Take computer magazines like PC Magazine, PC World, or Computer Shopper.  On any given day, there's really no telling if a magazine subscriber is looking to buy a technology product. They may never even open the magazine. But a newstand buyer? That's different. While you can't guarantee that someone buying a computer magazine on the newstand is ready to buy something, the odds that a newstand computer magazine buyer is more ready to buy some sort of technology product than is a subscriber are excellent. That's because most people don't buy a special interest magazine on the newstand unless they're seeking information and most people aren't seeking information unless they have a need and where there's a need, there's money.  Advertisers call this "intercepting demand."

I learned all this as the editor-in-chief of Windows Sources, and later, the editorial director of Computer Shopper. The circulation chief who originally oversaw these publications at Ziff-Davis (no relation to ZDNet any more) used Modern Bride (a former Ziff-Davis book) as the perfect example. He used to ask (jokingly), "What can you say about someone who renews a subscription to Modern Bride?" Great question.

Whether Madison Avenue realizes it or not, TinyURL.com is a demand intercepting weapon. Doc Searls often talks about the Intention Economy. Back in June, in a podcast interview, Doc told me:

It’s everything that follows the intention of somebody to buy something. It’s everything after marketing’s work is done.  In other words, I intend to buy a Ford Focus four-door wagon and I want to let the market know that and see what comes to me.

Doc told me this after talking about how most marketing dollars are wasted on attention instead of being spent on intention.

I'm not sure whether Doc would agree, but TinyURL is like a stealth intention engine. 

First, what does it do (if you haven't been there). Well, when was the last time you had to paste a really long URL (a Website address) into an email or maybe into a threaded discusssion forum.  Only to find out that once the recipients see it, it has been shortened or mangled into something that doesn't work because its length exceeds the capacity of the line it appears on (in the email or on another Web page in a discussion forum). TinyURL fixes that problem. I use it all the time. No matter how long a super long URL is, you just plug it into the home page of TinyURL.com, and it gives you back a 24 character URL.  It's fast, clean. It's magic. And there isn't one place I can think of that a TinyURL doesn't fit (it's especially usefull in mobile environments). 

So, at the very least, for certain types of Web users, TinyURL is just an incredibly useful utility.

So, why should Madison Ave care about such a simple utility? 

Well, Madison Avenue thinks something can be said about a person who visits a Web page. If that's the case, then, much like the difference between magazine subscribers and newsstand buyers, imagine what you can say about someone that goes to the trouble of turning a URL into a tiny URL. To that user, that must be one friggin' important URL.  That's all I can say. It's not a major effort to use TinyURL.com. But compared to clicking on a link? It's monumental and I think it says something about intention.

The lightbulb in my head went off when I realized that multiple submissions of the same URL to TinyURL generate the same exact TinyURL.  In other words, if you and me both enter the exact same long stretched out URL from some car manufacturer's Web site into TinyURL.com, we'll both get the same exact tiny URL back. So, let's triangulate the data.  TinyURL.com knows the exact Web addresses people are turning into TinyURLs.  And, TinyURL can easily figure out how many people are accessing each URL. And, with the help of a college intern, TinyURL.com can establish a industry category (eg: automobiles) for almost every URL that it shrinks.

So, back to the previous scenario.  You visit some car manufacturer's Web page to look at an SUV.  You decide to shrink the URL so you can pass it around via email. TinyURL is all seeing and all knowing. Based on the first time someone shrinks that SUV-related URL, it "registers" the fact that there's some long URL out there on the Web that has something to do with people looking for SUVs. Now, along comes David Berlind and he attempts to shrink the same URL. With what degree of certainty can you say David Berlind is interested in buying an SUV (or helping someone else to buy one).  What self-respecting SUV-making car manufacturer wouldn't want to have its advertisement right there?

Now, let's check out the second line under the title of TinyURL.com's home page. It says:

Making long URLs usable! More than 28 million of them. Over 675 million hits/month.

Need I say more?

So, the more I thought about TinyURL, the more I wanted to know. So, I contacted its developer: Minnesota-based Kevin "Gilby" Gilbertson for a podcast interview.

Using the Flash-based audio player above, the interview can be downloaded or streamed to your desktop. Or, if you're already subscribed to ZDNet's IT Matters series of podcasts, it should turn up on your computer and/or your portable audio player automatically (it just depends on how you have your podcatching setup). For more information on how to tune into ZDNet's podcasts, check our How-To. Update: If you're not seeing the Flash-based player, we're aware of the problem and working on it.

As it turns out, TinyURL.com isn't a sophisticated as I described above. Gilbertson talks about how he has server logs, but he apparently doesn't mine them for the sort of data that would turn his site into a Madison Avenue gold mine, especially if a Google, Yahoo, MSN, or AOL could pump traffic at it. So, not surprisingly, he's not contextually delivering targeted advertisements beyond what Yahoo's ad network can figure out (which Gilbertson says generates enough revenue to make a living on).  Here's some of what Gilbertson had to say during the interview:

ZDNet: I've been a user of TinyURL for a very long time, but a lot of people out there probably have no idea what it is, so why don't you first start by telling us what TinyURL does.
Gilbertson: Well, TinyURL is just a simple little website that somebody can go to and if they have a long URL that's hard to give to someone else such as over the phone or in an e-mail, perhaps several lines [long] and it's hard for the end user to actually then get to. This makes a short URL where somebody can easily give that away and let somebody get to the Web site they want to get to.
ZDNet: Why is it that when sometimes I paste a long URL Web site's address into some emails, that the person on the other end gets something that they can't click on and get to a Web site with?
Gilbertson: Well it could happen on either the sender's end or the receiver's end and if you've got a long URL, it's going to wrap across several lines and some email clients want to split up long words and stuff so that they fit on the width of the email. So if that happens, you only get part of the URL and if you were to click on that [part of the] URL, then you might not get to the page that was intended.
ZDNet: Every time that I go to TinyURL, the thing that crosses  my mind is this is the next YouTube...
Gilby: You think so?
ZDNet:  I think so, I don't know if you're worth 1.6 billion dollars, but I think well, this kind of traffic, this kind of utility, this kind of simple idea, lot's of incredibly useful data coming through that would be useful to advertisers on the Internet...I mean, you may not be offering Internet video, but you offer at the end of the day, the value that you bring to whoever needs that data to understand what people are interested in. Because with YouTube you can kind of figure out that some people are interested in X some people are interested in Y. With TinyURL you can clearly figure out what a lot of people are interested in and I look at this and I say this is the next YouTube as soon as more people discover it. Has anybody come knockin' on your door and said "Hmm let's talk turkey we'd like to acquire you and make you part of our family...some bug player like Google, Yahoo! or...?
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