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The Web’s Crystal Ball Gets an Upgrade

Bitly’s shortened links can forecast the next trend online—a partnership with Verisign is about to boost that predictive power.
November 14, 2011

Thousands of people every day use the link-shortening service Bitly to tame unwieldy Web links to share on Twitter and other social media sites. Few realize that they’re simultaneously helping the New York company peer into the Web’s future. Bitly analyzes the pages pointed to by the 80 million short links it generates every day to predict changes in the public’s attitude toward people and companies. Now Bitly is set to get access to a slew of new data that could make its Web crystal ball even better at forecasting the future.

Bitly has reached a data-sharing agreement with Verisign, based in Dulles, Virginia. Verisign acts as a kind of telephone directory for the Internet. Any address typed into a browser is sent to servers at Verisign or one of a handful of other organizations, which help turn that URL into a numerical address that a computer can use to find the Web page it needs.

Verisign looks up over 50 billion URLs every day and, like Bitly, gets a handle on what people are doing online as a result. In particular, Verisign’s data could add an awareness of activity outside the social sites where Bitly links are used. Andrew Cohen, Bitly’s general manager, wouldn’t give details on what this would make possible, but says he will explore the possibility of using the data to improve his company’s reputation-monitoring system.

Even without Verisign’s help, Bitly can already predict when a company’s reputation is about to take a dive. Cohen gives the example of the vehicle-tracking company OnStar, not a Bitly customer, which was caught in a privacy controversy last month. It began when one customer wrote a blog post about reading in OnStar’s tracking policy that the movements of drivers that have canceled the service are still tracked. As the post got passed around on social media, Bitly algorithms registered a growing anger directed at OnStar. “We see the acceleration in clicks,” says Cohen, saying that had OnStar been a customer, Bitly could have warned that serious trouble was ahead. Sure enough, the story was picked up by the mainstream press, led senators to criticize OnStar, and forced the company to change its policy.

Cohen likens Bitly’s service to a smoke detector. “You don’t hear from it very often, but it’s important when you do,” he says. The Verisign data will likely allow Bitly to better quantify such predictions because it can measure the usual traffic to a site and any deviations from that. “This gives Bitly another handle on the pulse of the Internet,” says Johan Bollen, a computer scientist at Indiana University. “The collaboration will give them a lot more leverage.”

Bitly may also use the Verisign data to improve the temporal resolution of its monitoring systems, adds Bollen. There is always a delay between a link being shortened on Bitly and clicked by the person who receives it, but Verisign data provides an instant log of the Internet sites that people are visiting.

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