Stranger Danger: Exploring the Ecosystem of Ad-based URL Shortening Services


Nick Nikiforakis, Federico Maggi, Gianluca Stringhini, Zubair Rafique, Wouter Joosen, Christopher Kruegel, Frank Piessens, Giovanni Vigna, Stefano Zanero


Proceedings of the 23rd international conference on World Wide Web (WWW), May 2014


URL shortening services facilitate the need of exchanging long URLs using limited space, by creating compact URL aliases that redirect users to the original URLs when followed. Some of these services show advertisements (ads) to link-clicking users and pay a commission of their advertising earnings to link-shortening users. In this paper, we investigate the ecosystem of these increasingly popular ad-based URL shortening services. Even though traditional URL shortening services have been thoroughly investigated in previous research, we argue that, due to the monetary incentives and the presence of third-party advertising networks, ad-based URL shortening services and their users are exposed to more hazards than traditional shortening services. By analyzing the services themselves, the advertisers involved, and their users, we uncover a series of issues that are actively exploited by malicious advertisers and endanger the users. Moreover, next to documenting the ongoing abuse, we suggest a series of defense mechanisms that services and users can adopt to protect themselves.


  title     = {{Stranger Danger: Exploring the Ecosystem of Ad-based URL Shortening Services}},
  author    = {Nikiforakis, Nick and Maggi, Federico and Stringhini, Gianluca and Rafique, Zubair and Joosen, Wouter and Kruegel, Christopher and Piessens, Frank and Vigna, Giovanni and Zanero, Stefano},
  booktitle = {Proceedings of the 23rd international conference on World Wide Web},
  series    = {WWW},
  month     = {April},
  year      = {2014},
  address   = {Seoul, Korea},
  doi       = {10.1145/2566486.2567983},
  isbn      = {978-1-4503-2744-2},
  pages     = {51--62},
  publisher = {International World Wide Web Conferences Steering Committee},
  url       = {}