Twitter’s explosive growth over the past five years is now the stuff of tech business lore. The latest traffic report from tracking firm Comscore only bolsters that narrative, showing the site received a record 32.8 million unique visitors last month, compared to 30.6 million in June, and 24.8 million in July of last year.
Still, Twitter in particular is still facing profound questions: how it will channel growth into profitability (especially now that it’s lucrative search deal with Google has lapsed) and, on a related note, how it can more efficiently direct its users to relevant content.
An unassuming update to how links appear on Twitter could help.
Twitter’s new built-in link shortening feature, rolled out last week across the website, automatically truncates links 20 characters or more to 19 characters, using an ellipses, and categorizes them under the domain “t.co”. (Shameless marketing plug: Try it now if you’d like by pasting the URL for this article into a new tweet on the Twitter main site).
It used to be Twitter users had to go off the website to shorten their links, using third-party shortening services such as Bitly and TinyURL, or using third-party Twitter clients like HootSuite (which shortens links under the domain ow.ly).
But now even these links will appear tagged with “t.co” domain, effectively rendering them unnecessary.
The result behind the scenes has been a breathtaking uptick in the number of referrals some websites, including TPM, are seeing from Twitter. The Next Web, for instance, even saw Twitter become the number 1 source of website referral traffic since the change.
Third-party clients such as HootSuite, Bitly, and the like can’t be happy about the change, as it’ll likely be interpreted as the latest salvo in the so-called “war” on third-party developers.
An asymmetrical war it is too, with Twitter clients lately comprising only 42 percent of the total tweets posted, according to a recent study of one day’s worth of tweets from Sysomos.
Plus, with the global implementation of the New Twitter interface for all users earlier this month, links to media such as videos and photos show up embedded in the main tweet stream, eliminating the need for third-party hosting services such as Yfrog and Twitpic, which were previously the only means to tweet pictures directly into the feed.
The link-shortening update makes total business sense from Twitter’s perspective though. Twitter seems to be gunning to be the number one social referral website (right now it ranks a distant third behind Stumbleupon and Facebook, respectively, according to StatCounter).
In the short term, the update does much to clear up a long-running dispute over how much traffic Twitter is actually sending, potentially offering marketers, companies and other high-profile, high-value users a more uniform tracking experience. It could even allow Twitter to compete with so-called content sites more effectively.
There’s only one big problem: Twitter doesn’t yet have it’s own analytics service. In the blog post announcing the update, Twitter noted:
Link wrapping provides an opportunity to learn how users engage with links contained in tweets. After the full t.co rollout is complete and our analytics has crystallized, we’ll be offering a set of APIs that developers can leverage to enrich their applications with gathered data.
I’ve reached out to Twitter to ask when it estimates we’ll see that “full rollout,” but I’m betting it will take some time. Even when it occurs, Twitter will have to provide a truly compelling reason why users should rely on it instead of the current default analytics tool, Google Analytics.