Text messages with shortened URLs might not get delivered—here’s why

Phone with green circle on screen, bitly short code, and T-Mobile logo

While link tracking is one of the few ways to measure ROI on SMS text messages because you can’t get read receipts, it can lead to a poor user experience.

Why? Public shortened URLs often redirect multiple times, and give little insight to the sender’s identity, adding another layer of complication when text messages get blocked for including them. One of the easiest ways to remedy that is by using custom domains that either match your current website domain or are recognizable to your company’s brand.

Commonly disallowed URLs shorteners include:

  • bc.vc
  • bit.ly
  • budurl.com
  • clicky.me
  • goo.gl (Google Drive links are also disallowed)
  • Is.gd
  • Ic.chat
  • s2r.co
  • soo.gd
  • tiny.cc
  • tinyurl.com

As it turns out, T-Mobile addressed this issue directly back in 2020.

As a quick refresher, on September 1st, 2020, T-Mobile released their Code of Conduct as it relates to Commercial (aka business) Messaging, which outlines T-Mobile’s preferences and requirements for application-to-person (A2P) messaging traffic on their network. At present, it would appear that if you want to reach anyone with a T-Mobile-connected device, you’re going to need to abide by T-Mobile’s rules.

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T-Mobile’s rules

One of the preferences listed by T-Mobile is  to “use one recognizable domain name.”  According to the T-Mobile Code, messaging programs (think appointment reminders vs sale notifications) “should be associated with a single business’s web domain. Although a full domain is preferred, a branded short URL may be used to deliver custom links. This adds continuity with the consumer to improve brand awareness as well as increases confidence in the link.“

That’s not the only thing they had to say about URLs though. In the “Prohibited Messaging Practices” section, where they ban shared short codes, T-Mobile has two URL-related rules:

  1. No using URL cycling to evade spam filters, meaning public URL shorteners like bit.ly or rb.gy are very likely to be blocked, preventing messages containing those from getting delivered
  2. URLs that redirect more than once are frowned upon because they can hide the real website destination from the consumer, possibly resulting in a fraudulent destination. The T-Mobile spam filters are checking for URLs with multiple redirects, and messages containing them are likely to be blocked.

In fact, due to the frequency of public link shorteners being associated with fraudulent traffic and phishing scams, AT&T has decided to block them entirely. While that’s not where others, including T-Mobile, stand yet, undertaking steps to improve message deliverability now could prove to be wise for the future.

What does all of this mean?

The efforts to minimize or eliminate use of shortened URLs that use public link tracking domains or hide links that are forwarded more than once is intended to help the messaging industry reduce spam, fraud, and abuse. Unfortunately, link tracking is one of the few ways companies are able to measure SMS/MMS engagement or the ROI of a program. This creates a frustrating conundrum for companies, especially when those companies are simply sending wanted messages that include important links.

In order to improve deliverability, there are a few steps you can do in order to avoid accidental blocks of wanted text messages containing URLs.

  1. Limiting the number of redirects a link will take is the first and most important thing to remember when sending messages with URLs. If you send a link that, when clicked, jumps two or three more times to a completely different landing page or domain address, users AND carriers think that’s fishy. Optimize your link destination and take advantage of tracking methods like UTM parameters to avoid multiple hops. 
  2. Using a full-length URL is the first suggestion carriers will give you, but that takes up valuable space on an SMS where you also have to identify your business and include contextual information in 160 characters. If you have critical links, it might be best to use full-length URLs and just bite the bullet on the extra message segment cost for those messages. 
  3. Use a branded shortened URL when short on space that’s identifiable to your domain. Big brands like ESPN (es.pn), Nike (swoo.sh), and the New York Times (nyti.ms) have invested in this method, but it’s not restricted to big name brands. It may seem cost-effective to use a free, public link shortener like bit.ly or rb.gy (Rebrandly) but if those messages aren’t getting delivered, the cost to your business adds up and can be much more expensive than just paying for a custom domain (which is more affordable than you may think). 

Don’t forget, you pay for messages you send, not just the ones that are delivered, so maximizing your delivery rate is in your business’ best interest all around.