What is Clickbait?
Have you ever been visiting a website and found yourself so captivated by a headline to another site that you couldn’t stop yourself from clicking? If the “article” you landed on vastly under-delivered on the promise of the headline, you’ve been victimized by clickbait. So, what is “Clickbait”?
What is Clickbait? A Legacy of Bait & Switch
There’s an old technique in retail known as “Bait and Switch,” wherein a merchant promises one deal, but then delivers something else once the customer is lured in (used car dealers have a notorious reputation for using Bait and Switch tactics). In a Bait and Switch setup, the retailer might feature a particularly attractive, “too-good-to-resist” deal in a shop window or in an advertisement, but then try selling the in-store customer something less valuable or something entirely different.
The Bait and Switch shopkeeper might tell the customer the featured deal was so popular it’s already sold out. Or maybe the shopkeeper will pile extra fees onto the “great deal” or try to hard-sell the customer on extra services or must-have accessories.
On the internet, clickbait is a kind of spiritual successor to Bait and Switch. Clickbait, however, isn’t necessarily linked to deceptive sales practices (although, in theory, it could be), and neither is clickbait illegal (Bait and Switch is).
What is Clickbait? A Definition of Clickbait
Clickbait is the practice of piquing the reader’s curiosity with a provocative, impossible-not-to-click headline. Once the reader clicks, he/she lands on an article that mostly or completely under-delivers what was suggested by the headline.
Said article is frequently a summary of other articles from various places around the internet or maybe a tangentially related video. In the most egregious cases, the article might not even relate in any credible way to the headline. Sometimes a clickbait landing site might even be hyper-loaded with advertising, pop-ups, pop-unders, and malware or viruses.
What is Clickbait? Examples of Clickbait
Clickbait headlines often include phrases like, “You won’t believe what happens next…” or “What happened next will shock you.” Sometimes clickbait headlines will throw in the name and/or picture of a celebrity, such as: “Dieting Tips Miley Cyrus Wishes She Knew.” Here are two live examples of clickbait in action: 17 Facts You Won’t Believe Are True and What State Do You Actually Belong In?.
These come from buzzfeed.com, an extremely successful site whose content model has largely been built on clickbait (in fairness, though, BuzzFeed denies the “clickbait” characterization). Upworthy.com is another example of a high-profile site that’s been largely built on clickbait. A third high-profile example—tabloid-journalism site TMZ.com—often straddles a line between legitimate, if sensationalized, journalism and clickbait.
If you’re interested in seeing an extreme, satirized example of clickbait, Clickhole.com is a great place to gain a comprehensive perspective on all the internet’s absurdities. In fact, Clickhole.com has generated controversy because its headlines sometimes work as authentic examples of clickbait in action.
There are many other clickbait-centric sites out there that aren’t as high-profile. Unfortunately, Clickbait has proven to be a dependable way for certain less-than-scrupulous internet operations to drive traffic. To a certain degree, clickbait works. It’s important to note, however, that for legitimate content providers interested in building long-term relationships with their clients, clickbait is ultimately self-defeating—more on that in a future blog.
It’s also important to note that well-written headlines that entice readers to click to legitimate content—content that delivers on the promise of the headline—isn’t clickbait. Does this mean the same headline could, in theory, be used as both clickbait and as a legitimate headline? Yes; but clickbait will usually differentiate itself by sounding overly salacious and provocative, or by using some variation of “You won’t believe what happens next…” or “What happened next will shock you.”
Clickbait is the Enemy of Legitimate Marketers Everywhere
So there you have it: a brief definition and summary of clickbait. If you’re still not quite certain what clickbait is, try surfing some of the sites listed in this blog, especially clickhole.com. I’ll cover other aspects of clickbait in future entries as well. For now, though, just remember: If you own a business and want to build a legitimate client base on the internet, clickbait is the enemy and its use should be avoided.