Is Clickbait Dead or Stronger than Ever?

Facebook has promised to eliminate fake news, which most of them are presented with “clickbait” headlines. Google has also tightened up their paid ads to improve the overall online experience, which aims at reducing clickbaits significantly. Such movement is a notable reaction as millions of readers have been cheated by misleading headlines, and the Internet giants feel responsible for remedying the situation.

The logic is: Eliminating clickbaits would improve online experience. And it’s also the objective. The thing is, what we wish often doesn’t match with the reality.

Do you truly feel that your overall online experience has improved? Also, do you think clickbait is dead or stronger than ever?

First things first, let’s define what “clickbait” is.

While there is no official definition of what “clickbait” is, below are several versions proposed by big names in the Internet realm.

New York Time‘s definition of what does and doesn’t constitute a “clickbait“:

One cardinal rule is that we don’t want headlines that leave readers feeling cheated when they’ve finished the article. That’s our definition of clickbait. The challenge in a competitive news environment is writing headlines that grab the reader’s attention while maintaining our standards. So, for example, you might see more headlines for explanatory pieces that begin with How, Why or What. But you’re not going to see “You Won’t Believe What Happened Next!”

Facebook‘s version:

…we categorized tens of thousands of headlines as clickbait by considering two key points:
(1) if the headline withholds information required to understand what the content of the article is; and (2) if the headline exaggerates the article to create misleading expectations for the reader.

Buzzfeed‘s definition:

According to Buzzfeed CEO Ben Smith, a “clickbait” can be narrowly defined as “an article that doesn’t deliver on its headline’s promise.”

And the widely respected Oxford Dictionary also attempts to define clickbait:

(On the Internet) content whose main purpose is to attract attention and encourage visitors to click on a link to a particular web page.

In a nutshell, as long as a headline “cheats” or “provokes” readers into clicking it and it may not sufficiently summarize the body of the article, it has the elements of a “clickbait.”

Now, whether you feel the overall online experience has improved or not is somewhat subjective. And one person’s perception isn’t an indication of how things are doing as a whole.

Thus, it’s better to understand how clickbaits work, so you can recognize them immediately and make the hard decision to read or not to read. And leave the eradicating job to the big guys.

According to research done by the Computer Science Department of Federal University of Minas Gerais, Brazil, which was presented in a paper titled “Breaking the News: First Impressions Matter On Online News,” the analyzed 69,907 headlines produced by four international media outlets in 2014 resulted in a conclusion that strongly negative or strongly positive news were most likely to attract more readers. Also, a headline has more chance to be clicked if the sentiment expressed is extreme, either positive or negative.

Overall, a clickbait has elements of curiosity, emotion, exclusivity, and challenge, according to Kissmetrics. The information gap shown in the curiosity and emotion-laden headline sparks readers to click, because (well) you just have to. Otherwise, you wouldn’t have the complete information. (And that’s when you realize that you’ve been “cheated.”)

Interestingly, this clickbait technique is actually not new, but has been adopted by direct mail copywriters since the 1800s. Historically speaking, the human history is full of clickbaits. The Internet didn’t invent clickbaits, but merely magnified them. And since we’re now continuously consuming information through various gadgets, we’re more exposed to clickbaits than, even, two decades ago.

Image Source:
A clickbait headline published in 1927. Image Source:

Looking back, clickbaits were all the rage in Victorian black-and-white stencil magazines, and multi-page direct mail letters had been filling our mailboxes in the last few decades up to the late 1990s. And they were also popular in the initial period of yellow journalism, which partially fueled (not caused) the Spanish-American War.

In conclusion, today’s clickbaits aren’t the product of Internet era. They have existed for centuries and will remain to be used in human civilization through various distribution channels. However, since the Internet big guys have started an initiative aiming at reducing clickbaits and fake news, we can expect to see fewer of them in social media feeds and search engine results.

The most important takeaway from this whole clickbait situation is to equip ourselves with awareness of clickbaity headlines, so we can better use our precious time to select and read high-quality articles. The thing is, it’s also possible to publish high-quality articles with clickbaity headlines. So, it’s encouraged to carefully discern what we consume and produce.

Jennifer Xue is an award-winning author, columnist, and serial entrepreneur. She has published 2,000 articles and 100 e-books/reports with proven record in brand awareness, lead generation, and revenue increase. She can be reached at Follow her Twitter @jenxuewrites