Clickbait content: the good, the bad and the downright ugly

CLICKBAIT THE GOOD, THE BAD & THE DOWNRIGHT UGLY

When you’re looking to get more traffic to your website, you might be looking for ways to encourage people to click through. If the quality of your content isn’t inspiring those clicks, then you might be looking for ways to get people to just click through anyway. To clickbait or not to clickbait, that is the question!

Well. It might not have actually been the question, but it is a question that is definitely worth pondering. If you’re thinking about using clickbait to get people to your website and wondering if it is a good idea or not, this article is for you. We’ll dig into what clickbait really is, where the practice came from, all the reasons not to use it as well as some of the reasons that you should consider it, and take a look at some examples of good use of clickbait and some really bad examples.

What is clickbait content?

Clickbait is pretty much exactly what it says in the name – something that can bait readers into clicking something. Generally the headline will be shocking in some way, and it is the emotion that is evoked that is designed to encourage, or to ‘bait’ readers into clicking through to the next page in order to find out more.

What-is-clickbait-content

Why is clickbait used, you might wonder? It is specifically designed to get the attention of readers, and to maximise the number of people clicking through, sharing and liking the content. When it is used by marketing professionals, it is used specifically for that purpose – in order to get people to click through to the article they want people to read, like and share. Although clickbait is used a little bit more legitimately by marketing individuals and reporters who are trying to get people to click through to read their content, there are plenty of internet scammers who deploy clickbait as a way to lure unsuspecting people into clicking a link that causes malware to be installed on their phone or PC.

How to recognise a clickbait headline

Although you’re probably pretty familiar with clickbait headlines already, there are some similarities that occur regularly between clickbait headlines and titles.

  • The headline inspires people to share it on social media
  • The headline evokes a strong emotional reaction – typically humour or anger and outrage
  • A funny video is embedded, or funny photos accompany the headline
  • The written content isn’t particularly in-depth – it is usually easy to skim read
  • The headline makes the reader want more information
  • The article is usually less than 300 words
  • The topic and the content are distinctly unoriginal, and the embedded video can be found in plenty of other articles online

We might have listed these traits, but it isn’t a checklist, and it is important to remember that not every clickbait article with have every single one of these points. We’ve seen clickbait articles that are pretty long for example – but they’re filled with waffle that doesn’t really add any value to the article.

Types of clickbait

There are a couple of other strategies that work in a similar way to clickbait – there are just a few differences in the way that they work:

Rick-rolling

We’ve all been caught by it at some point – the bait-and-switch linking internet prank that is a Rick-roll. It’s basically a link that is dressed up as something else, and when the viewer clicks through, it takes them to the music video for Rick Astley’s 1987 hit Never Gonna Give You Up. Why? Well, the first one was allegedly a link to a preview for Grand Theft Auto IV, and rather than sending viewers to a trailer, it sent them to Astley’s video. We’re not quite sure why that video was chosen in particular… But this type of bait-and-switch linking is a popular way to trick users, which in turn encourages extensive sharing as they aim to catch their friends out in the same way that they were.

Click fraud

Clickbait is often associated with fraud, but click fraud is a different type of online misrepresentation altogether. It uses workers, robots or bots to constantly click on PPC ads on websites. This might be to generate income, or it might be to target a competitor’s ads in order to cost them extra money. It might sound petty, but this sort of thing happens a lot!

Why does clickbait work?

Since it is widely recognised as being a somewhat annoying tactic, you might assume that marketing professionals would avoid using it at all. Unfortunately for readers, clickbait is incredibly effective and so there isn’t any likelihood of marketers stopping using it as a tactic any time soon.

Tabloid journalism might have been the predecessor of techniques like clickbait, but the psychology behind such techniques is real and works incredibly well in the mind – which is why marketers, tabloid reporters and gossip magazines still use it. Getting those hits of dopamine to our brain as a reward when we finally click through and satisfy the urge to know, and the ‘Vegas effect – where we simply can’t resist the urge to click through and have a look – they’re pretty powerful, and the only way to avoid succumbing is to avoid them altogether.

Why-does-clickbait-work

People hate not knowing

The fear of the unknown is pretty important in the human brain – it is what helps us to understand what is a threat to our wellbeing and if there is something in the environment that could potentially cause us harm. Although a clickbait headline is unlikely to cause us any real harm to our wellbeing (even if we are repulsed or outraged by what is on the page when we click through!) the same part of the brain is triggered, and we’re prompted to find out what that clickbait article is really going to be talking about. We’re literally hard-wired to make sure that we’re safe and that the threat is eliminated as a problem.

The human brain is conditioned to remember unfinished business

There’s a psychological phenomenon called the Zeigarnik effect that details why people are more likely to remember tasks that were interrupted much more, and in a lot more detail than the tasks they were allowed to complete uninterrupted. Clickbait is generally seen as an interruption, but the combination with the previous point – the brain seeing clickbait as something potentially important – it is even more effective. Even where readers are able to resist the urge to read the article, generally it is found that later on, they will want to go back to the article and read it.

Fear of missing out

The fear of missing out phenomenon – also known as FOMO – is more common than ever in the 2020s. People hate thinking that they have missed out on something that everyone else has seen or is doing. Clickbait articles appeal to the emotional side of the brain, which encourages people to click through to the article to ensure they don’t miss out on what is being promised by the headline.

Fear of missing out is nothing new at all, but has been fuelled to incredible proportions by the growth of social media. Considering the amount of time that the younger generation spend online generally, and on social media networks, there is no surprise that they are particularly susceptible to experiencing the fear of missing out on something fantastic if they don’t click a leading headline.

The history of clickbait

The idea, and the psychology behind clickbait has been around for many decades. We can find the first type of clickbait behaviour in the sensationalist headlines of gossip magazines and the tabloid media – designed purely to pique the curiosity and to encourage people to buy more newspapers.

Many stories that were featured in tabloids were not legitimate, or well researched (and still may not be – we will leave you to make your own judgement calls about that one!) and in many cases, journalists paid their ‘sources’ for a story or photo, without checking the authenticity. Many tabloid stories, especially those around celebrities and royalty, cite ‘a close friend’ or ‘an acquaintance’ who has told them about whatever the journalist is writing about – which is always suspicious. Add an extra pinch of salt for those mentions of ‘a friend, who declined to be named’!

Today, since there are no real rules on the internet about what is, and what isn’t allowed, (yes, even when we take into account the EAT aspects of SEO) there are many people writing for websites and literally making things up as they go along with purely the desire to get more clicks. It is like tabloid reporting would be if there were no restrictions!

The-history-of-clickbait

Reasons to avoid using clickbait content

You mean apart from the fact that many people find the kind of outrageous claims that clickbait titles tend to be annoying and distasteful? For many of the same reasons that people are abandoning trashy magazines and red-top newspapers. Well, if those reasons don’t convince you, there are other good reasons to avoid using clickbait, even if you have already decided you probably won’t end up using it.

You’ll get the wrong type of visitors

Clickbait inspires a lot more people to click through – which is partly what you want, of course. But a lot of people clicking through doesn’t mean that you will necessarily get the right sort of visitors to your website. If you’re trying to build brand awareness and brand loyalty – which you probably are – then chances are, the type of viewer that clicks through for a clickbait headline isn’t who you actually want to click through. Not that there is anything wrong with someone who clicks a clickbait headline (we’ve all been caught out by a headline that promises cute puppies or kittens!) but the viral nature of a clickbait headline means you’re probably going to get people who aren’t interested in your brand and what you do. They are just there because they want to know the answer to whatever shocking or scandalous headline you’ve posted.

Your page bounce rate will go through the roof

Does page bounce rate matter as much as we all worry it does? Perhaps, perhaps not – that Google algorithm is forever changing, after all. But do you really want thousands of unique visitors to your website that left after less than ten seconds, and never returned again? Probably not, because it doesn’t look good, and it certainly isn’t going to help you to build any kind of brand awareness or brand loyalty.

Clickbait headlines don’t usually suggest to readers that your post is going to be full of engaging, useful content, so people aren’t likely to stay on the page for long even if your article is valuable and informative. When people click a clickbait headline, they’re very often not in the right mindset to read a long article – so a trashy clickbait headline ends up doing your high quality content a disservice.

Your target audience won’t be impressed

Even ‘good’ clickbait headlines usually brings us to disappointing content when we’ve clicked through to read the article. When we find a clickbait headline like “We found the most adorable puppies in the world!” and we click through (because you know – puppies!) we’re expecting a really long page full of photos of painfully cute pups of all shapes and sizes. If the page has only got two or three photos, we’re off elsewhere to get our fix of tiny tails, paws and wet noses.

That disappointment is what you want to avoid – because that is what is going to increase your page bounce rate, and the sort of engagement that you’re looking for with potential customers is destroyed.

Today, clickbait has moved towards headlines that are a lot more specific about what the article includes. If we switch up that headline about adorable puppies to read along the lines of “We found the 25 sweetest photos of puppies with their mothers!” (yep, you’re right – we clicked through again already!) The format of the title is a little better, because we know exactly what to expect when we click through to the article – we’re going to get at least 25 photos of pups with their mamas.

It can damage trust in your brand

Think about what your reaction is when you encounter a salacious or shocking clickbait headline. You probably roll your eyes at some of them, while others you’re likely to ignore completely – and we are willing to bet that you don’t trust most of them. We all know and understand that those clickbait headlines are at best, a waste of our time clicking through, and at worst, a ruse to get us to install malware on our PCs or to lose money when our bank details get stolen.

Clickbait is being recognised more and more by readers as spammy, and is widely associated with junk-like content. If you’re using these types of headlines, readers are likely to react in much the same way as you do. Hyping up your headlines might be good for getting clicks, but it isn’t likely to increase the trust in your brand, or to get repeat readers to your content. Keep headlines for your blog posts interesting by all means, but using more trustworthy and on-brand titles is more likely to be a more successful strategy.

It will make understanding your site’s data difficult

When you’re looking at the analytics for your website, you’re going to want to get a true reading of what is going on – especially if you’re selling ad space, or working with other companies to monetise your website. Ad agencies or influencer networks might be impressed initially if you can say you’re getting 50,000 hits a day, but they won’t just ask you how many clicks you’re getting. They’ll want to know how long the readers are staying (your bounce rate) and they’ll want to know about your audience – demographics and so on. You just can’t capture that information when you’re relying on clickbait, because people aren’t staying on the page for long enough, and they are almost never going to convert to a paying customer.

People are just bored of clickbait these days

We’d be showing our age if we told you how many years we’ve been reading clickbait headlines online and rolling our eyes at either how awful the headline is, or how bad the article was when we were actually enticed to click through. As we mentioned in the history of clickbait section, these are tactics that have been employed by journalists and marketing individuals for decades before the internet was even invented – so using clickbait just feels a bit dated. Most internet users know what clickbait is, and won’t fall for it.

People-are-just-bored-of-clickbait-these-days

Search engines

If you’re thinking of using clickbait as a way to boost your website rating, think carefully. You might get an increase in traffic, for sure. But is it going to be a long term gain that continues to bring traffic to your website over a longer period? Probably not. A lot of SEO considerations today are focused on those EAT guidelines – expertise, authority and trust. Even if the content contained in the article is super relevant, a clickbait-like headline immediately erodes the trust in the article.

On top of that, your page visitors that clicked through because of the clickbait title will not be inspired to stay on your website and move through to other pages in the same way that a visitor that really wants to know more about your business does. Visitors that arrive after clicking a clickbait title are much more likely to leave your page, and go in search of what they were really looking for – which just means your bounce rate is going to be higher. Search engines know whether the page will engage the user as it should, and so if it doesn’t – because you’ve used a clickbait title, and your content doesn’t deliver what the title promises, then your page isn’t likely to rank very highly on search engine results pages.

Why do marketing professionals use clickbait?

In short? For the clicks. A lot of websites use metrics like page views and unique visitors to market themselves to advertisers, and to monetise their site. The thing is – people will almost always click through more when there is a clickbait headline, so it works. That means the publisher of the headline is rewarded with a view – and for as long as it works, marketing professionals are going to continue to use clickbait.

Is clickbait ever going to die out, you might wonder? Well, whether you think it should or not, we very much doubt it will ever go away completely. The principles behind clickbait has been around for such a long time, there is little chance of it dying out. While we’re all trying to understand the ever-changing algorithms for Google, YouTube and the social media networks, there is almost always value in getting more views on your website and your social media posts.

The thing is, there is a balance that can be found between using clickbait headlines, if you follow it up with outstanding content that actually feels worth the cheesy or sensationalist headlines. Keeping a website and social media presence that are both easy to find, that has a good load time, and actually is worth your time to read – well, that’s all pretty tough to keep on top of. Since clickbait can actually be used well in the right circumstances, let’s take a look at some of the reasons why it can be a good thing.

The case for using clickbait content

With everything we’ve just told you, you’ve probably already decided you’re not going to use clickbait in your strategy. But used carefully, and followed up with the right type of content, it can be a useful tool to get your articles in front of people that really should see your posts.

You’ll get more page views

Clickbait is designed to get people to click through, right? So there is no real surprise when we say that the main reason that marketing professionals use this type of incentive is to get more clicks on a website. It can be a really effective way to drive traffic to your website – the key is that you’re going to want to be careful with the way that you use it, and when it is appropriate to do so.

You’ll-get-more-page-views

You’ll want to carefully track where your traffic is coming from, so that you can split out your organic traffic from your clickbait traffic. There are plenty of other options to create both shareable and interactive content that you could be using that don’t come with the downsides that clickbait have. Just be sure that you’ve weighed up the pros and the cons, and understood whether clickbait is the right option for your business.

There’s more chance of your post being shared on the socials

The reason that many people are enticed to click a clickbait headline is the same reason that so many people are likely to share it. The strong emotional response that the headline creates in the reader is a powerful thing! Research has indicated there are six main emotions that are likely to get an audience to take action and share the article on their social media:

  • Shock
  • Joy
  • Disgust
  • Sadness
  • Anger
  • Fear

It makes sense – unless people care about what they’re reading for some reason, they’re not going to share it with their followers, or email it to someone else to have their reaction validated. Rarely do we see articles being shared because it made people think ‘oh that’s nice’ or ‘never mind, that doesn’t matter’. These emotions are generally felt incredibly strongly in the body, and without that strong emotional response, and the belief that someone else will feel the same way they do, viewers and readers are less likely to share.

Potential for greater brand awareness

It is a logical result that the more page views and social media shares that you get, the more awareness of your brand will grow. If the aim of your content is to increase awareness, then clickbait can be a great way to achieve this – but as long as you have carefully considered whether clickbait is the right way to do it. As we’ve already seen, there’s a certain negativity to clickbait, and in some industries, use of clickbait will project the wrong kind of image altogether. There are so many other tactics that you can use to grow brand awareness that can also help to grow the trust in your brand – so consider carefully if you want to risk your clickbait article to be seen as an example of what not to do.

Examples of effective clickbait headlines

If you decide to create clickbait headlines to try and increase your click through rate, then you should ensure you’re creating content that really does what you’re promising in your headline.

“12 Things Every Student Must Know Before Heading to University”

“The Ultimate Guide to Parenting a Teenager Without Losing Your Mind”

“10 Jobs That Will Further Your Career and Make You Feel Good”

“The Most Shocking Documentaries You Should See Before You Vote”

“30 Must-Have Products That Will Keep You Cool Through The Summer Heat”

These headlines are pretty leading – but there is a good indication of what is going to be involved when you click through. These are the types of articles that, although the headline is designed to get more clicks, might actually end up being placed further up the search engine results pages, because they contain useful information that people want.

A great headline that gets people to click through and professionally written content isn’t the end of what you’ll need in your article, of course. You need to bear in mind that SEO today requires you to demonstrate the reason you should be trusted – so for example, that ultimate guide to parenting a teenager will need links to professional content, and the writer should have some reason to be trusted as a parenting expert. If you’re looking for fantastic and effective email headline inspiration click here.

Examples of bad clickbait headlines

For all of our examples that we’ve come up with here, there are thousands, if not millions more that work in much the same way!

“Once You See This You’ll Never Want An Animal In Your Home Again”

“You Won’t Believe How This Man Called The Cops But Ended Up In Jail Himself”

“We Can’t Cope With What This Fast Food Chain Did – You’ll Never Eat There Again!”

“After This Science Lesson Her Family Was Never The Same Again”

“The Discount Codes That This Supermarket Doesn’t Want You to Find Out About”

These headlines are designed to make you wonder what could possibly be so awful, or to ensure you’re looking for a way to save yourself either money or the revolting experience someone else had – with the exception of the science lesson, because it’s a pretty safe bet that a discovery about blood types was involved!

The downright ugly clickbait

So we’ve covered the types of clickbait headlines that can be good for your strategy, and the bad – and now we’ll get to the downright ugly types of clickbait. These types of clickbait generally employ the types of headlines in our collection of bad clickbait headlines, so although you might not have to run when you see them, click through at your own risk – we’ll show you why next.

The scam clickbait

When something seems like it is too good to be true, it usually is. Clickbait is often used to advertise an offer, deal or bargain that is just a little bit too fantastic to be believed. “iPads marked down to just £50!” or “Get the latest Samsung phone at less than half price – today only!” are typical, alongside plenty of others that we can think of. As users click the link to try and find out more, or with the intent of making a purchase, they are taken to a fraudulent website. This dodgy website is usually a replica of, or looks a lot like a legitimate website, but when they put their payment details in, and attempt to check out, the scam artists steal their credit card and personal details. The visitor to the website is left with nothing, and may only discover that they have been scammed when their credit card bill is significantly higher than they expected.

The phishing clickbait

Phishing is an online scam that aims to fraudulently get personal information out of users, and to steal bank details. Clickbait titles are used to get unsuspecting users to click through, before they are redirected. There are often headlines implying that the bank is at fault, and that the person needs to take immediate action to secure their funds. When the victim of the clickbait scam clicks through, they’ll see a fake version of the bank’s website. As they put their details in, their personal data and bank login is stolen – and at worst, their money is taken too.

The-phishing-clickbait

The download clickbait

This type of clickbait headline is usually accompanied by a video, and is generally so scandalous that the person reading the headline won’t be able to resist clicking through to see the video. When they click the link though, they usually find they need to install an app before they’re able to view the video. You don’t need us to tell you that the app is non-existent (although often the ‘app installer’ is disguised to look like a legitimate app) and the video is non-existent too. What’s the point then, you might think? To get malware on the user’s PC that can then be used for much more nefarious gains.

How can you spot the ugly clickbait?

There are a few clues that give away something as being clickbait with a more sinister agenda than getting you to read the article.

It sounds way too good to be true. If it sounds too good to be true, it generally is when it comes to internet marketing. Those headlines claiming that there has been a pricing error on Prada handbags, or Apple Watches, or anything else that you really want but you definitely can’t afford, or perhaps just don’t want to pay full price for? They’re likely to take you to a website that will steal your credit card details and then you’ll be even more out of pocket than if you just bought your object of desire at full price.

It redirects you to another website. If the page loads and then reloads to take you to another page, run! The sorts of headlines we see and hear people getting caught by are such as “This Bank Is Refunding All Charges! Find Out If You’re Eligible For Your Refund Today!”. Let us tell you the cold, hard truth: your bank probably isn’t refunding charges unless you go into the branch (and even then, they’re probably not going to be giving you any money back!). Don’t click those links, and most definitely don’t put any of your personal or banking details in.

You’re told to download something. Just don’t click and download anything, especially if it is just to watch a video. If you’re looking to watch a video, head straight to a legit video hosting website – YouTube or Vimeo are your best bets. There are millions of hours of content uploaded to YouTube every day, and you can almost certainly find a video of what you’re being promised by that clickbait link there (with the exception of adult content – there are other websites for that!) and if you can’t find what you’re looking for on YouTube, it probably doesn’t exist.

Who decides what counts as clickbait?

As a term, clickbait is a pretty subjective idea. We can know and understand what sort of things that clickbait can encompass, but there is a massive number of other websites and headlines that are coloured far more than 50 shades of grey – they’re not quite full-on clickbait, but they’re not not clickbait either. Of course, it depends on which angle you’re looking at the clickbait from – we’ll name no names, (because you probably can think of even more than we can!) but there are many executives, investors and world leaders who proclaim a story is ‘fake news’, or dismiss an unflattering story as being simply clickbait.

Who-decides-what-counts-as-clickbait

There are some websites that exist purely to host the sort of stories we’re talking about – BuzzFeed is one such website that springs to mind, although Editor-in-Chief Ben Smith claims that BuzzFeed “doesn’t do clickbait”. Whether you agree or not with his claim, the likes of Popsugar, Funny or Die and BoredPanda are full of links with headlines that are just begging for readers to click through and read the story.

Ben Smith’s claim might be pretty eye-popping, but he claims the difference between their stories and ‘real’ clickbait, is that with ‘real’ clickbait the story doesn’t deliver. He states that although the BuzzFeed headlines might be outrageous and attention-grabbing, they do actually deliver what they claim they are going to. That article entitled “this is what the cutest little girl in the world looks like today!” or “this dog gave birth to 24 puppies, equalling the world record!”. On BuzzFeed, the article is likely to actually show you a picture of a woman who was once labelled by the media as ‘the cutest little girl in the world’, (probably dressed up with some scathing commentary about how she’s as stunning as she once was) or in the case of the latter, a photo of some adorable puppies and a story about how the owner found out the dog was expecting so many. As you’ve already discovered, we’re easily tempted to click through for pictures of adorable puppies! With ‘real’ clickbait, according to Ben Smith, you’ll simply be disappointed, since the article won’t deliver what it promises.

what-doesnt-count-as-clickbait

With that thought in mind, does our headline count as clickbait, you might ask? Well, it depends on how you see the information we’ve included in our article! (we’ve even included a picture of some cute puppies to convince you – hopefully you’ll consider this a good side of clickbait!) We think we’ve covered some good, some bad – and you’ve got to admit, some of those clickbait strategies are pretty awful.

Final thoughts

There are plenty of reasons to avoid using clickbait content, but there are some pretty strong reasons to use it anyway. If you’re looking to boost your place on the search engine results pages, or you want to increase the number of page views your website gets, then clickbait can be a strategy that really works. However, we recommend using it carefully – especially if your industry is particularly conservative in the techniques that are traditionally employed in marketing. You don’t want the name of your business to be known for all the wrong reasons. If you’re going to use a clickbait-like headline, be sure to follow up with really valuable content to ensure your customers are satisfied they clicked through for all the right reasons.

If you’re looking for help with creating content that converts, or you need help getting your website to the top of the search engine results pages, get in touch!

Last Updated on October 20, 2020

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