Tracking the path of sharing online is endlessly fascinating. And it’s a lot less difficult than it used to be.
So what does Bit.ly have to do with this? Quite a lot, actually, because when people use a link shortening service like Bit.ly they in effect add a unique homing device to each URL they shorten. Google Analytics can tell you when a user landed on a page and where they came from. Bit.ly can tell you when a user shared a link because they track the shortened link’s creation as well as its travels by knowing when the link was clicked on to be opened.
Think of it like this: if I shorten and share a link from Oliver Sweeney (for instance) Bit.ly knows that I created the shortened link, and that 53 people clicked on that shortened link. All Google Analytics knows is that 53 people visited that particular page in the Oliver Sweeney site without having started at the home page. (They do that, too.)
What Microsoft Research and Jake Hofman are showing us is a vastly expanded way to visualize how shares content originates and propagates through the interwebs. It’s what separates, as Mr. Hofman put it, the viral from the merely popular. This is the start of a whole new way to measure and validate what happens in the exchanges between people online.