In praise of short URLs and one innovative provider

Like everything else, short URLs follow the rules of supply and demand. My first internet business, in the mid-1990’s, had a four-character dot-com domain name. Back then this was good but not extraordinary. Now the dot-com space is so crowded that many start-ups look like they were named by dipping a spoon into alphabet soup. Luckily there are short URL services — most famously [I was thinking of, the clear winner of the two in terms of Alexa’s Daily Reach metric.]
These businesses take the sting out of a rangy line of URL characters, while helping to avoid truncation (in emails) and misspellings (when speaking the address over the phone).

As a market leader, TinyURL offers a ton of features. Maybe too many. An upstart I’ve just learned about (thank you Steve Purkiss of ProjectStars) will give this status quo provider a run for its money. For this month’s One Positive Day, consider what is doing right.

I love URLao’s simple, clean, Web 2.0 interface. They get you started quickly and pull you in with simple explanations of their best features. Here is the language they use for them:

Private Redirect
Ensure your privacy by requiring users to enter this password before being taken to the destination.
Enable Cloaking
This option hides your target URL — when users visit your link, they will only see your shortened URL in the address bar of the browser.
Preview Target
Give your users confidence by allowing them to preview the location of the redirect. On visiting your link, the user will be shown the location of the redirect and be asked to click the link or to confirm they wish to visit the destination site.

Notice the number of features is short. Just three. It’s a wise move for an upstart player in this category … promise a simpler yet improved experience.

Short URL Example (using

Notice the benefits-heavy descriptions. This is even smarter. I used the last of these features when I created this short, clear URL to go to a Google Maps location of our parent company (and the home of ec-connection): It’s a shortened version of this ungainly URL: schmidt,+milwaukee,+wi&ie=UTF8&ll=43.043614,-87.899938&spn=0.009158,0.021114 &z=15&iwloc=A&om=1

There are other features you should investigate, such as tracking each short URL’s use. I’ve often wondered how I could easily track how many people in a short list of email recipients actually click through to the links I’ve provided. This gives me that power, while ensuring that none of the URLs are broken in the process of opening, replying or forwarding the email.

As with so many other start-ups, this one offers its services for free. That means you definitely do not want to use it for mission-critical work, or anything where online security is an issue. But for quick, smart creation and monitoring of customized URLs, I have yet to find a service better than this one.

Four frivolous blogs for One Positive Day

I interrupt this Labor Day holiday weekend with something totally frivolous. It’s the first day of the month, and in honor of Kevin Hillstrom’s One Positive Day concept I’d like to praise a group of people, instead of a single business or individual. Today, in this warm and sunny Midwestern Saturday, I’d like to tip a glass of something cold in the direction of the millions of people who’ve made the Internet richer by sharing their lives and their talents with the world.

I write a professional blog, for purely professional reasons. I love it. I hope that comes through and takes some of the starch out of these posts. But there is always a level of propriety. The web may be freewheeling, but at least within these virtual office walls, I’ve placed limits on the topics covered and how they are discussed.

Blogging For The Fun of It

Most of the tens of millions of active bloggers have quite different standards and approaches. To my surprise, many are friends. I did a mental count yesterday, and realized that four of these friends who “blog for fun” were friends before they started blogging. (Full disclosure: One of them is more than just a friend. Hi, Julie. I’ll be home shortly — promise!)

A favorite of Max Estes’ blog so far

And here, I’ve defined a friend in less the Friendster definition of a close connection on a profile, and more as a “real world” friend. In other words, I’ve shot the breeze with all of them, without a business connection or prior blogging relationship. Here are their blogs, listed from most recently founded to most established:

  1. My Life As A Bunny As I write this in a coffee shop, Max Estes is sitting at the neighboring table. His newly-launched daily blog (Wow! I can’t believe he’s so prolific!) is an absolute treat (example shown above). You may notice his style. He gave me permission to use a piece of his artwork to adorn the home page of this blog. I pray he wasn’t drawing me, but I’m too chicken to ask.
  2. Marty Feldmanize Me I’ve had the pleasure of knowing Augie for years. We first bonded over geek stuff, and the store for pet lovers he operates with his wife. And yes, we’re also professional colleagues. But I hope we’re friends first. Lately, his blog has shown me a new side to this complicated individual. Similar to the original Sienfeld show, I’d define this as a blog about nothing. I’ve enjoyed taking a break with it quite a bit.
  3. Bad Ass Birds The only blog in this list with a mildly vulgar title is also coincidentally the only one I would give a solid “G” rating, in terms of content and profanity. It amazes me how a mixture of made-up birds, odd reviews of even odder films, and semi-serious summaries of 1970s Dark Shadows TV episodes could add up to something so compelling. Man! As I look around, these bloggers are making me feel so boring!
  4. The Song In My Head Today This blog is lovingly written by a talented and passionate music reviewer (who also has excellent musical taste, in my humble opinion — she and I agree so often on her selections!). You’ll be challenged and entertained by Holly’s reviews. And God bless anyone who has on her blog an Elvis Costello Week!

Could you think of a better time than now, during this sultry long weekend, to amble through some new and perfectly frivolous blogs? Go for it. Subscribe to the ones you like, and be sure to comment on them as you see fit. (Comments keep us bloggers from feeling like we’re wasting our breath!)

And if any of your friends come to you and say, “I’m thinking of starting a blog,” tell them you know someone who has seen several of his friends — mostly non-tech types – take the plunge and revel in the world they found on the other side. Give your friend plenty of encouragement and watch what happens. It’s a blast for all involved.

Thinking in mapped networks, with connections real and implied

More than a year ago I started telling trusted friends and colleagues about a great piece of software. Half-joking, I would lean forward and confide that this is one secret too valuable for me to blog about. The digital equivalent of a performance-enhancing drug, it was something I’d prefer not to leak to competitors. That is, until today. In the spirit of openness, and timed to coincide with my friend Kevin Hillstrom’s One Positive Day campaign for blogging civility, I am ready to spill the beans.

Thinking With Both Sides of the Brain

Ever since my college days I had wondered if there was a smarter way to organize my thoughts. Common note-taking techniques didn’t seem to cut it. Looking around, I wasn’t optimistic. Certainly the first personal computers, with their DOS-like lists, hierarchies and sequences, were of no help.

Then I found the books of British “pop psychology” author Tony Buzan. In a Madison, Wisconsin used bookstore, I discovered the first: a copy of his 1974 Use Both Sides of Your Brain, where he talked about something called mind mapping.

Buzan wrote that standard outlines require scanning from left-to-right, top-to-bottom. This causes the brain to work harder to make the interconnections between concepts.

Back then Buzan couldn’t have envisioned the modern solution to this dilemma, which is to boil lists down to a point where they lose much of their potential meaning and utility. Or conversely, the author will stretch out the information across a blinding sheaf of slides and spray of “bullets.”

I’m referring to Powerpoint of course, a product that Edward Tufte, author of The Visual Display of Quantitative Information and other classics, so eloquently lambastes in this essay.

Our brains are built to survey information as it is seen in the physical world, making associations through placement, space, distance and color. The more complex the subject, the greater our brain resists tidy categorizations and rankings.

Thinking In Mapped Networks

Enter the mind map. The illustration below shows a hand-drawn example. It’s one Buzan that would have been proud to call his own.

An example of a hand-drawn mind map

To the person who drew it, there is more meaning here than could be crammed into a dozen pages of lists.You can instinctively see how these maps help with lateral associations while still allowing for more formal hierarchies and sequences. As you might expect, some maps are never really completed by their owners. They are continually refined. New insights and perspectives leap off the page with every rereading. This is a good thing, because it shows how concepts can grow and deepen over time.

That was Buzan’s point, and luckily, many modern software developers have listened.

An advantage of the computer-based mind mapping tools is they are easier to share with others (you can even port some softwares’ output to other programs, including … Powerpoint!). Annotation features also help. They add explanation that is needed when you’re showing your map to others — or just trying to remember what the heck you meant when you drew it!

The best mapping tools can even be used as collaborative brainstorming aids. I’ve checked out several over the years, and the best by far is the award-winning Mind Manager. Visit to see for yourself.

Put bluntly, it could change the way you think.

MarchFirst, Second Monday, and the scarcity of good domain names

Today is an auspicious day, and not just because it’s the first ever One Positive Day. This is the eighth anniversary of US Web officially changing its name to I recall realizing for the first time that the business world was running out of good dot-com brand names, and fast.

Back then, US Web was the fastest growing web development franchise in the country. They were hot stuff — super-heated, in fact, by the plentiful VC of the Dot Com Boom. When they chose the new name MarchFirst, they gave marketers such as myself a clear look inside their rebranding process.

To me the new name suggested a frustration – and ultimate resignation — over a growing domain name scarcity. Eight years hence, this scarcity has has only gotten worse.

I can understand why they had opted not to choose a non sequitur, like, or something flippant and undignified, like Yahoo!

They chose instead what I like to call the cocktail party story variety of brand name. It’s an opportunity for employees to tell something about their company, because saying who they work for at a cocktail party forces the question, “What does that name mean?”

Sadly, the answer in this case is hardly memorably, or instructive of the brand: “That’s the day we were renamed MarchFirst.”

When I started my first business in a new market, I chose a similar cocktail party story name. I chose Second Monday Direct Marketing. People would ask, and I would explain that in a direct mailing, the second Monday after the first day of response was often the best day of response.

It wasn’t a scintillating story, but it was novel. It also associated my business with direct mail and results. What’s more, it helped me say the brand name a few times during the course of the story, which was all that it took for people to remember it. The name was easy to say over the telephone, and spell. It made a good domain name.

If I had to name a direct marketing company today, however, I’d be out of luck, and not just because the factoid this name was based on is no longer true. went into circulation long ago, and has been scooped up by someone else. Just like nearly every other good domain name you can imagine.

More recently, I had luck with another cocktail party domain name, (If you want to hear the story you’ll have to invite me to your party.)

Second Monday is not availableThis week my team is embarking upon yet another “namestorming” exercise, for yet another client whose brand name will be inextricably tied to their domain name. Once again, the process won’t be pretty. It will require lists of hundreds of word combinations. There will be disappointing WHOIS searches –brief high hopes dashed by a message like the one on the right. When I try my luck with domain name ideas, I feel like the poor schmo in the convenience store, scratching off another lottery ticket that yields — zilch.

If there is any good news in this, it’s that the soul of good art (and branding is an art!) is constraint.

The boundaries of the rectangular picture frame actually free the painter, and the limitation of the 88 piano keys inspires the songwriter. Struggling as we have been with the ever-shrinking canvas of available domain names, I was inspired this morning to hear on NPR a story about Theodor Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss.

He took the challenge of writing a book to replace the unbelievably boring Dick and Jane series of reading material. Seuss was on a noble crusade to teach six- and seven-year-olds how to read without prematurely sapping their will to live.

Accepting the challenge, Seuss faced a huge limitation. He was handed a list of only 200 words that children this age were likely to be able to understand. According Philip Nel, the author of The Annotated Cat, and quoted in the NPR story:

“[Seuss’] favorite story about the creation of The Cat in the Hat is that it was born out of his frustration with the word list.

“He said he would come up with an idea, but then he would have no way to express that idea. So he said…: ‘I read the list three times and almost went out of my head. I said I’ll read it once more and if I can find two words that rhyme, that will be my book. I found cat and hat and I said the title will be The Cat in the Hat.'”

In the end, Nel says, Seuss used exactly 236 words to write The Cat in the Hat, words that young readers can understand.

The assignment took nearly two years to complete, but the result is a book that is still read and loved – which is inspiring until you realize that his pace works out to less than three words a week. Yikes!

Our domain namestorming must produce a half dozen viable name options in as many business days. It’s an especially tall order because, I swear, there simply aren’t 200 good domain names remaining in all of Whooville.