With New Feature, Bitly Links Can Now Open Apps

Company Considers Data Licensing but Privacy, Data-Protection Obstacles Remain

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Bitly is best known as the firm that helps keep Twitter posts at or below 140-characters. But every time the link-shortening system truncates a publisher or brand site URL, it's gathering 20 data points showing things such as location and device type and enhancing profiles of the users clicking on those mini links.

Today, the firm is set to extend its technology for mobile app "deep linking," offering clients including Ford, Campbell's, Amazon, Etsy, Disney and Visa otherwise-obscured insight into mobile app usage.

Put simply, the feature employs an app ID which automatically opens the appropriate mobile app to display content on someone's device when she clicks on a Bitly link. For instance, if someone clicks a Bitly link in the Facebook app leading to a Buzzfeed story, the system will open the Buzzfeed app to display the story, or suggest that the user download the app. In addition to providing additional data on mobile app users, the system promises to help companies drive more traffic to their apps.

Bitly encodes more than 600 million links each month and around 60% of its link traffic comes through mobile devices, said Bitly CEO Mark Josephson.

Bitly is not unlike Facebook, Twitter, Google or social sharing tools such as AddThis or ShareThis, in that it sees a lot of what people are doing across the Internet -- and now in mobile apps -- and can tie that information together in profiles. The company can then tell clients information about people accessing their web and mobile app content.

"Then we correlate the clicks to those profiles…so we start to build really rich profiles of consumer behavior," he said.

Bitly doesn't gather personally-identifiable information, and provides the information in anonymous, aggregated form. It also doesn't have user registration data like Facebook, Twitter and Google do. In addition, the company doesn't allow competing advertisers using its data to conquest, so one fast-food chain wouldn't be able to use the data to target people who have interacted with another fast-food chain, said Mr. Josephson.

Bitly technically owns its data because every time someone clicks one of its links it actually redirects to Bitly's server, prompting a first party cookie to be installed on a user's device. It allows each client to access the data associated with links connected with their content, and has recently begun transferring data for some clients to client DMPs. Because Bitly cookies are first-party, it is one of the rare companies that can offer its partners data on users accessing apps via Apple devices. Apple's operating system blocks third-party cookies.

"We have hundreds of millions of first party iOS cookies," said Mr. Josephson.

Because the data provides a relatively holistic view of which users are clicking through from specific channels, clients have insight into audience overlap. For instance, they'd be able to learn which of their users come from both Facebook and Twitter.

Bitly doesn't offer its aggregated data to other data companies, but that could change, said Mr. Josephson, suggesting that he has considered working with audience-measurement companies like Nielsen. "We definitely are in active discussions to license the data to those kinds of customers," he said, stressing that concerns about privacy and protecting client data have created obstacles to forming such deals.

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CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story said Bitly encodes 6 million links a day, rather than 600 million.

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