You now know what clickbait is, and you are powerless to resist its allure.
“Clickbait” refers to articles with headlines that create a “curiosity gap”. These headlines have been carefully written to pique the maximum amount of interest whilst providing almost no information at all about the article’s content.
Clickbait headlines trick a reader into viewing content they may otherwise have ignored. Granted, this can be a great means of raising awareness of causes and stories. Indeed, Upworthy’s mission statement explains that they intend to “make important stuff as viral as a video of some idiot surfing off his roof”.
More often than not, though, time spent reading articles with clickbait headlines is time wasted.
What’s more, as the content seldom lives up to the promises of the title, clickbait can often result in disappointment.
Even worse, disaster can ensue when sites that don’t have the underlying good intentions of Upworthy resort to writing clickbait headlines. American news giants CNN infamously covered a serious story with a manipulative headline that will haunt them to the grave.
The problem is, if you want to drive traffic to your site, clickbait works. Three years ago, Upworthy didn’t even exist. Now they can lay claim to over 20 million unique monthly page views; yet even this pales in comparison to the 19.3 million people who visit Buzzfeed each month.
These soaring figures might lead one to conclude that clickbait is here to stay, so we had better just get used to it.
Fortunately, though, it’s starting to feel as though a backlash has begun.
In July, satirical news giants The Onion launched an Upworthyesque site of their own called ClickHole.
It is, of course, hilarious. However, when I wrote about Clickhole back in July, I couldn’t help but feel a little sceptical:
This searing satire will doubtlessly go viral and generate The Onion a large amount of ad revenue.
I appreciate that this is probably the whole point. But now that they’ve made their point, will ClickHole gracefully disappear, or will they continue to churn out low-quality, high-impact content and reap the rewards of the ad revenue?
Will they force us to reconsider our choice of media outlet, or will they instead give us yet another bookmark for our phones and browsers; yet another place where we can waste countless hours consuming amusing, unchallenging and branded content?
Funny enough, I now have an answer to the series of rhetorical questions I posed.
Mashable conducted an interview with Ben Berkley, managing editor of both The Onion and ClickHole. “In its first two months,” writes Jason Abbruzzese, “ClickHole at times does seem more like it’s piggybacking on the success of digital media rather than holding it to the fire.
“By dubbing itself as satire, ClickHole gets a free pass and seems more like it’s joining the party than correcting lowest-common-denominator content.”
The Mashable article contains an interactive quiz that presents you with a series of headlines. You have to guess whether they come from Buzzfeed or ClickHole. It seems that most people cannot tell the difference.
As funny as I find ClickHole, I cannot help but feel let down. It seems it was not created in the satirical spirit that makes The Onion such a formidable force, but rather in a spirit of “if you can’t beat them, join them”.
Thankfully, though, there are places other than ClickHole that have taken to satirising the reprehensible clickbait phenomenon.
Upworthy Generator randomly creates a clickbait headline, which is matched to an unrelated video. This randomly generated content is often all but indistinguishable from the sort of content you might find on the real Upworthy.
Similarly, some Twitter accounts have dedicated themselves to fighting the good fight against clickbait. Upworthy Spoiler is perhaps the most famous, but I much prefer Saved You A Click, if only because they cast their net much wider.
With a staggering lack of self-awareness, Buzzfeed compared Saved You A Click to “a petulant 8-year-old”.
Surely they protest too much.
The popularity of these accounts is telling. To me it suggests that people have had quite enough of clickbait. For further evidence, just read the comments underneath Buzzfeed’s critique.
And, with perfect timing, Facebook have just updated their algorithm in such a way that’s designed to bury clickbait.
Facebook Declares War on Clickbait
In a newsroom post, Facebook’s Joyce Tang and Khalid El-Arini announced some improvements to the Facebook news feed. These improvements are designed to “help people find the posts and links from publishers that are most interesting and relevant, and to continue to weed out stories that people frequently tell us are spammy and that they don’t want to see.”
Tang and El-Arini references a survey in which Facebook asked people what content they preferred to see in their news feeds. It seems that 80% revealed that they preferred headlines that “helped them decide if they wanted to read the full article before they had to click through.”
Facebook are separating the clickbait from the click-worthy through measuring the “bounce rate” of these articles. Having clicked the link, how long does it take people to return to Facebook?
“If people click on an article and spend time reading it,” say Tang and El-Arini, “it suggests they clicked through to something valuable.
“If they click through to a link and then come straight back to Facebook, it suggests that they didn’t find something they wanted.”
Facebook will use this information to identify clickbait. Any links with high bounce rates will soon cease to show up in people’s news feeds.
Is this an initial nail in the coffin for clickbait? Perhaps not. Indeed, this Facebook algorithm update has attracted no small amount of criticism. What if it ends up unfairly penalising links to quality articles that just so happen to be short? What if it results in bloated articles that have been needlessly padded out to 2,000 words so as to ensure that you spend ten minutes reading them?
However, flawed or not, I still believe there’s a lesson here.
Clickbait – Where Do I Stand?
Clickbait headlines might well create an irresistible curiosity gap in the minds of your readers, but I would advise bloggers and tweeters to tread carefully from now on.
Facebook’s new algorithm, coupled with the popularity of such Twitter feeds as Saved You A Click, suggests to me that people might be getting wise to clickbait.
Beyond the manipulative headlines are stories that, whilst occasionally engaging, often fail to live up to the hype.
If you need to resort to baiting and switching to get people to read your content, does it not suggest that your content isn’t worth reading in the first place?
It seems to me that people are coming to accept that clickbait headlines are not “must-reads”. Rather, they are fluff. They are filler. They are eminently ignorable, and duly blocked out.
And what will rise to the surface once people start to ignore the clickbait articles?
The sort of content that has always thrived online, and always will. The sort of content that is genuinely original, genuinely useful, genuinely entertaining, and genuinely remarkable. The sort of content that stands out on its own terms, without having to resort to subterfuge to attract readers.
And it is on this sort of content that you should be focusing. As with most things on the internet, the long game will always beat the quick win; and currently, clickbait looks to be the quickest win going.