Long day’s journey into bitly

…with apologies to Eugene O’Neill.

For the past two years, I have checked in from time to time with bitly and added to my posts about what I found. What started as an amusing projection — how could the URL-shortening service evolve as they began to run low on 6-character hash strings? — turned somber, morbid, even sepulchral. Most recently, I wrote in The bitly dea(r)th watch that, because of Twitter’s DIY shortener, t.co,

…it was [now] less a matter of when bitly would run out of unique hash strings and much more a matter of when the world might run out of bitly. Would the dearth become a death, not to put too fine a point on it?

And yet my tentative, optimistic inference was that, based on the unique-visitors-per-month metric from the SiteAnalytics tool at Compete, there had apparently been a significant improvement since the first of the year in combined traffic for bit.ly and bitly.com. So maybe there was a way up and out.

Alas, I have now re-visited the sites/stats and bitly’s “journey” doesn’t look so promising after all. Here is the updated month-by-month history:

At best, the early growth has zeroed out. More tellingly, here is the update of the data since May 2010, with three overlapping segments that define a clear “sawtooth” pattern: a downward leg for May 2010-April 2011; the upward leg for February-December 2011, which was the basis for my above-mentioned optimism; and the latest downturn (red) for November 2011-June 2012:

Needless to say, I wasn’t the only one who noticed this portent. In fact, a May 29 post on the bitly blog announced “the new bitly”! Hooray! OK, so now what?… Actually, I have no idea. Other than the rather cute/quaint pitch for renaming bookmarks as “bitmarks,” I’m hard pressed to see the appeal. There is a list of six bulleted items, but I can already do most of those with my regular browser plus the occasional tweet or SMS to someone else if I need “social” help.

So I turned for insight to other parts of the bitly blog. This is a favorite spot of mine because of the thoughtful posts by Hilary Mason, Chief Scientist of bitly, who has explored questions such as:
● What is the half-life of a bitly link? [Answer: about 3 hours]
● What is the best day of the week and time of day to post on Twitter vs. Facebook? [Answer: Twitter — early afternoon, Mon-Thu; Facebook — mid-afternoon on Wednesday. For both, avoid weekends like the plague.]

Mind you, these are just little numerical analyses. They are not serious science in the sense that the discovery of the Higgs boson at CERN was hypothesis-testing and method-affirming at its scientific and philosophical best. But they are more than enjoyable and informative reading. They do answer questions, even if relatively few people are asking those questions.

The second bullet (above), from May 8, was her most recent such analysis and post, exactly three weeks before “the new bitly” was revealed. In fact, it was the last blog post by anyone prior to the announcement. Interesting. That suggests three weeks of intense soul-searching, planning, dreaming up a new business plan. Despite obviously months of falling traffic. Only to be followed during June and early July by a few posts from various staffers with headlines about puffer fish and edible food(!) and neon bracelets. It gave the appearance of trying too hard — Oh, look what I can do with “the new bitly,” and you can too! — to the point of embarrassment.

But surely, I thought, there must be more to it than that. And there was, although the next item left me even more baffled! The really big news on July 10 was that a venture capital group, led by Vinod Khosla no less, had invested $15 million in bitly:
Liz Gannes, All Things D
Staci Kramer, GigaOM
Anthony Ha, TechCrunch

Really? $15 million? If I had found this venture on Kickstarter, I might have coughed up $15. Or maybe $150 if the idea was extraordinarily original. But (even if I had it, which I don’t), $15M?!! Listen closely for the sound of flapping porcine wings.

I wasn’t the only one who didn’t get it. Here is just one example, a bit more acerbic than most, asking “Does bitly have a business model?” I wonder the same thing. On the other hand, Khosla et al. have $15M to invest because, at least in the past, they have known quite well what they were doing. It will be interesting to see what emerges in this instance.

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