Using short URLs in print

We created Go.USA.gov because short URLs are necessary for Twitter and other online services, and we wanted to help people know when short URLs lead to official government sites. We've recently seen some of our users print Go.USA.gov URLs in government publications like brochures and posters. Short URLs can work on the printed page, but we want to point out a few issues that can create a poor user experience when using Go.USA.gov URLs in print.

Typos

When a person sees a Go.USA.gov URL in print, the person must then type the short URL into his or her browser exactly as it appears. This is easier said than done when you consider that Go.USA.gov URLs are case sensitive and contain homoglyphs. Homoglyphs are letters and numbers that look similar to each other. Examples include 0 and O (the digit zero and capital letter O), and 1 and l (the digit one and lowercase letter L). Some users leave off the characters after the slash completely and enter "go.usa.gov."

Can you tell the difference between http://go.usa.gov/l0t and http://go.usa.gov/1Ot? Each URL goes to a very different destination.

Misdirection

When a user does not type the short URL exactly as it appears, he or she may be sent to the wrong destination or to an error page on Go.USA.gov. Many users who end up on Go.USA.gov become frustrated or confused and then contact us for help. Some people even try to register for an account to access the information.

Whenever possible, we help these people find the information they're looking for, but there are ways to prevent them from getting lost in the first place.

A solution

If you want to use URLs in print, consider creating vanity URLs using readable words on your own domain, such as youragency.gov/brochure or youragency.gov/program-name. Using a URL that is easy-to-read, easy-to-remember, and easy-to-type will help your audience find their way from print to the Internet much more easily. Also, if you use your own domain, users are more likely to end up closer to the intended destination if they make a typo.

Using short URLs in print is important because no one wants to read and type a long URL from a brochure. But Go.USA.gov URLs may not the best solution when going to press. Please consider your audience and circumstances carefully before printing a short Go.USA.gov URL.