GSA to debut link shortener by year's end

New service built on the Drupal open-source content management system

The General Services Administration will launch a link-shortening service, called GoUSA.gov, for government workers by the end of the year, according to Russell O'Neill, the GSA information technology project manager who runs the project.

O'Neill spoke about this project at the Government Open Source Conference being held today in Washington.

With the recent widespread use of microblogging services such as Twitter and Identica, link shorteners have gained a newfound popularity. Web address shorteners such as TinyURL and Bit.ly can take a long Web address, technically called Uniform Resource Locators, and return a shorter address that points to the same resource. When someone enters this short address into a browser, the shortening service redirects the user to the original page. URL shorteners can be handy in providing others with a manageable-sized Web address for others, often 30 characters or fewer, instead of sharing an address hundreds of characters in length.

The service will be limited to holders of valid .gov and .mil e-mail addresses, and the site will only shorten .gov addresses, O'Neill said.

Despite these limitations, O'Neill said there are a number of advantages for setting up a government-specific URL shortener. One is that can be used as a trusted service. A government shortener would help government employees, who can trust that a .gov-shortened address will link to an actual government site.  With commercial sites, shortened links that covertly link to malware sites, usually in conjunction with deceptively alluring messages, is one problem. The shortened URL, which is randomly generated, offers no clues as to the destination of the link.

"With Bit.ly, you never know what you'll get when you click on that link," O'Neill said. In contrast the only links that government employees can encode will be from the .gov and .mil domains. O'Neill pointed to a McAfee 2007 survey that showed virtually no malware sites exist on .gov addresses.

Another reason GSA wanted to set up a link shortener is that it allows the agency itself to better understand what Web pages government employees and citizens find the most useful. Since the mission of the GSA-run USA.gov search service is to provide government resources, watching which links generate a lot of traffic will help point GSA to previously undiscovered resources.

"We wanted to build this to catch the data and find out what the public is really interested in," O'Neill said. The site itself includes a list of the most clicked-on shortened links.

Thus far, more than 300 govvies from a select number of agencies have signed up to use the beta version of the service and have shortened more than 400 links, which, in turn, have been clicked on more than 34,000 times.

The site is built on the open-source Drupal content management system (which the White House has also just deployed for its own Web site). Drupal proved to be a good choice because of its modular design, which allowed GSA to add in much of the needed functionality with already-developed modules, O'Neill said.

"Drupal provided a wonderful starting point," O'Neill said, adding that the entire project cost less than a $1,000 to set up, not including manpower costs. "There were already modules out there to help us get started."

The development team used the ShortURL and Shorten modules shortening duties, and the TLDRestriction module that restricts the Web addresses entered to just the .gov and .mil domains.

O'Neill said GSA is looking for additional Drupal volunteers to help with the project.

About the Author

Joab Jackson is the senior technology editor for Government Computer News.

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