The Great Clickbait Debate: The Arguments For and Against Clickbait

Clickbait is an intriguing debate conversation.

There are people resolute in their choice to either praise it or condemn it. Considering that the term “clickbait’ has only been around for a little over a decade and a relative baby as far as dictionary words go, this debate is destined to be one of the greatest of the modern era, right up there with, ‘Is Die Hard a christmas movie?’ and ‘Does pineapple belong on pizza?’.

As SEOs and content creators, this is an important debate to consider. Clickbait has positives and negatives and understanding those pros and cons is important for creating the best content headlines possible that encourage the strongest SEO and engagement results.

In this discussion, we’ll break down this clickbait debate and try and make sense of it all. Are clickbait headlines and content ever the right move?

Defining Clickbait

In 2016, “clickbait” became an official word in the Oxford English Dictionary. It is defined as:

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

This is accurate, but too general; we could apply this definition to nearly every piece of content. What it’s missing is the connotation that usually follows clickbait — that it’s sensationalist and promises much, sometimes the impossible, while delivering very little.

This is really a core issue within the clickbait debate. Everyone’s working definition is slightly different, particularly to the degree that this negative connotation is applied. For some, clickbait is simply any content that entices a click, whether it is good or bad. 

Others feel clickbait is always bad. And that bad reputation has only grown worse under the lens of today’s fake news scandals and confusing sponsored stories.

For the purpose of this debate, I’m going to offer a revised definition that acknowledges the negative connotation, but doesn’t completely cede the idea that clickbait could have positives:

“(On the internet) content whose main purpose is to attract attention and encourage visitors to click-through, typically, but not always, through sensationalist headlines”

Argument #1 In Favor Of Clickbait: More Clicks

The most obvious draw to the ‘Yes’ campaign for clickbait is that, as its name suggests, it creates clicks. Whether you’re sensationalizing the content or creating a sense of mystery that causes someone to click-through to the article, these headlines work.

We’ve all fallen prey to following a clickbait headline. I’ve clicked on them even when I knew it was clickbait. It’s the entire reason that sites like Buzzfeed and Upworthy have been able to thrive.

BuzzSumo examined 100 million headlines on Facebook to see which sort of clickbait phrases had the highest average engagement. Headlines that contained more sensationalist phrases like “…will make you” or “what happened next” had, on average, between 1060 and 8961 engagements on Facebook.

On the other hand, more common headline phrases (which even I’ve used), like “…on a budget” or “X simple tips…” had less than 50 average engagements. That is a staggeringly big difference.

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Clickbait headlines just work.

Counter Argument: Clicks Don’t Matter As Much Anymore

For a long time, we measured content performance based on the click. And, many people still do treat the click as the single most important metric. However, clicks and pageviews don’t translate to engagement and that’s really what our content hopes to do.

According to a study by Chartbeat, one in three page visitors will click away from an article in the first 15 seconds. In short, a large percentage of those pageviews are relatively meaningless because they failed to generate any visitor engagement.

Thus, Chartbeat’s CEO, Tony Haile, suggests that we should no longer be living in the ‘Click Web,’ but rather the ‘Attention Web.’ In other words, creating content that keeps people engaged and their attention focused on continuing to read, watch, listen.

That’s the complete opposite of what clickbaited content typically offers. And, all those less-than-fifteen-second views will wreak havoc on your bounce rate.

Argument #1 Opposed To Clickbait: Facebook And Google Don’t Approve Of It

In 2014, Facebook made a public blog post regarding clickbait content and how they were changing the News Feed algorithm to combat it. They stated that they would begin determining clickbait content by measuring how long people spent reading that article off of Facebook. If the majority of clickers came right back to their newsfeed, it may suggest that the content didn’t have the value it promised.

Then, they’d look at the engagement of the post. If a lot of people were clicking, yet few shared or hit the ‘Like’ icon, then it could be another signal that the post is clickbait.

Google has similar algorithmic measures to spot clickbait content. Bounce rate can impact a page’s rankings. If people aren’t spending time on the page absorbing that content, Google figures that the page isn’t valuable and ranks it lower on the SERPs. 

Counter Argument: The Force Is Strong With Clickbait

While Google and Facebook may have safeguards in place to try and soften the proliferation of clickbait content, it doesn’t really stop it. At best, it removes the truly, truly awful sensationalist content. 

Yet, there’s a lot of clickbait out there and, while its main intention is to drive clicks, this content also does have a lot of engagement, evidence by the BuzzSumo study. Thus, Facebook’s algorithm, in a way, is actually rewarding clickbait because this content usually sees a lot of likes and comments, even if it is just people sharing negative sentiments about the clickbait nature of the content.

As for Google, it is uncertain how impactful bounce rate really is, especially if a page is seeing a ton of traffic.

The problem is that the clickbait naysayers (and these safeguards) make an assumption that clickbait content is seldom read or consumed for very long. While this may be true for the very worst clickbait offenders, it isn’t true for the majority.

For one, not everyone has the same level of literacy when it comes to sensationalist content. Some people can’t readily detect that they’ve been bamboozled into clicking something that under delivers on its headlined promise.

Secondly, clickbait content can be engaging because it so abhorrently sensationalist. Again, this type of content sees a lot of comments and engagement metrics because people want to discuss the very nature of it being clickbait. It’s the same reason some people (myself included) adore the Hallmark Christmas movies; the acting isn’t great, the plot is predictable, the characters are basically the same in every movie, but they are immensely popular for just those reasons.

Argument #2 In Favor Of Clickbait: A Pathway To Brand Awareness

If we agree that clickbait content does see high engagement levels, particularly on Facebook, then it could be a powerful stimulant of brand awareness. More engagement means more shares, comments and likes, which increases the reach of content and attracts more and more viewers.

Clickbait is engaging because it is largely designed around stirring up emotions through its sensationalism. Triggering emotions is a powerful tactic because people are more likely to remember that content and be compelled to share it. And, when they remember the content, they remember your brand, which is at the core of why we produce content in the first place.

Counter Argument: But At What Cost?

Brand awareness is good, when the means to acquire it are also good. This isn’t always the case with clickbait content. If you’ve built your brand around sensationalist content, chances are you’re not going to have that overwhelmingly positive reputation you’re after.

When clickbait is at its worst, it misleads people and all in pursuit of a click. As discussed, truly bad clickbait occurs when that headline greatly over-promises and the content itself under delivers. That can be incredibly damaging for your customer experience and cause brand loyalty to dissolve.

You don’t want your brand to be known for clickbait content and untrustworthy headlines.

Argument #2 Opposed To Clickbait: It’s On Its Way Out

There’s a lot of content creators and digital marketers that believe the heyday of clickbait content has already passed us by. This goes back to Tony Haile’s suggestion that we’ve evolved from the ‘Click Web’ to the ‘Attention Web.’

Clickbait headlines have become so immensely popular that content consumers are rapidly becoming experts at avoiding it entirely. As soon as a clickbait phrase, like “you won’t believe what happens next,” appears, people scroll the other way.

As more time passes, clickbait education is only going to grow stronger and more content consumers are going to be able to immediately identify it and ignore it.

Counter Argument: Clickbait Has, And Always Will, Exist

Clickbait is no new phenomenon. Sensationalist journalism has existed long before the Internet ever came around and advertisers have always lived on the cusp between over-promising without outright lying.

It isn’t going anywhere.

What may occur, however, is that clickbait changes. It starts to shed some of those more popular, attention-grabbing headlines in place of new ones. But, as long as we’re trying to entice clicks, you can bet that we’ll be baiting our headlines.

Conclusion

So, do we condemn clickbait or praise it?

It is really impossible to condemn it for a number of reasons. First, everyone does it to some degree. We all should be agonizing over our headlines because we want people to find them interesting. Otherwise, we’d just post specific, direct headlines with little-to-no creativity behind them.

Second, clickbait, to some degree, does really work. It creates increased traffic and engagement, which can be used to build brand awareness and eventually customers.

The danger is that clickbait can quickly become damaging, especially when it is taken too far. You have to walk a tightrope between sensationalizing your content, but not overdoing it to the point that content consumers feel misguided.

The best strategy, although difficult to consistently reproduce, is to combine a clickbait-ish headline that draws a lot of traffic to content that actually delivers and holds their attention.

About Ashley Ward

Ashley Ward is the Founder of Madhouse Marketing, a digital marketing agency in San Diego, specializing in content and social media marketing. Speaking both internationally and throughout the US, Ashley regularly teaches workshops and speaks at conferences like Pubcon, BrightonSEO, SearchLove, Digital Summits, Retail Global, and the prestigious SMS Sydney. Ashley has also co-authored the best-selling book “The Better Business Book V.2” and is a contributing writer to industry blogs such as Search Engine Journal and AuthorityLabs.

Filed under: Insights