Here’s a perfect example of an overly-superfluous clickbait title:
This Cute Puppy Shows This Homeless Veteran One Weird Trick for Weight Loss—and You Won’t Believe What Happens Next!
While some have heralded clickbait titles as a useful engagement style, most have harshly and vocally criticized it as tabloid-style sensationalism.
Criticisms range from calling it gimmicky to insinuating that it’s responsible for the death of journalism, but no matter where you stand on the clickbait issue, clickbait still works.
Clickbait continues to drive many of the eyeballs for Buzzfeed, Upworthy and many other online media outlets (including many legitimate media sites).
If it works for them, should you use clickbait as part of your SEO strategy?
Does it harm your brand?
The answers depend on your understanding of what clickbait is and how you use it.
Rob Steffens from Bluleadz.com defines clickbait as
content calculated to maximize reader clicks, attention, and shares
By this definition, clickbait isn’t inherently misleading.
It’s simply the art of enticing users to click.
Unfortunately, clickbait is synonymous with unethical marketing thanks to the intentional disconnect between headline and article.
Sensationalist headlines have always been around in some form—most notably on the cover of supermarket tabloid magazines—but it’s only within the past few years that they truly rose to prominence on the Internet.
To understand how the phenomenon came to be, we must look at the two signature qualities that allow it to exist: the motivation to earn clicks by any means necessary, and the social element of viral ideas.
The key motivation in most Internet-based schemes and gimmicks is to make money.
So if clickbait is a way of making money, why has it only risen to prominence recently?
Money-making schemes used to be all about getting money directly from web users, such as the infamous Nigerian prince scheme or weight loss pills. When the web was fairly new, these spam emails and flashing advertisements were everywhere—and they worked—but users and web authorities quickly became aware of the schemes.
Spam filters and ad flags quickly got rid of the majority of these attempts, and user savvy avoided the rest of them.
Today, it’s almost impossible to get direct money with these schemes. In order to make money, you have to get people to your site, and get them clicking as much as possible. “Clicks” are the new cash, so instead of doing whatever it takes to get your money, companies are doing whatever it takes to get your clicks.
Clickbait evolved naturally. Consider the case of Upworthy, which has become one of the most notorious propagators of clickbait on the web. Their editors didn’t intentionally create gimmicky articles—instead, they used a straightforward mathematically testing process to figure out which type of headlines worked best for their shared material. It probably won’t shock you to learn that clickbait-style headlines just happened to perform the best, so they stuck.
The second key environmental quality of clickbait is its propensity to be shared socially. The rise of social media encouraged the growth of this industry. Rather than having these articles naturally found by searchers or web browsers, companies could use similar tactics to get them shared thousands of times across the web, drastically increasing their reach.
Recognizing clickbait as a new form of spam, both Google and Facebook (two of the web’s biggest authorities) have begun taking measures against it. Starting in 2011 with the Panda update, Google has gradually refined its ability to detect “high quality” content, eliminating any duplicate or unoriginal content (which is common in clickbait) and learning to recognize gimmicky headlines designed only to attract clicks. Now in the era of Panda 4.1, Google has all but eliminated the worst clickbait offenders from its search results.
Stories published to Facebook (that include relevant links to your content) are ranked based on a multitude of factors, including how much time people spend reading the content after they click. When users click away and come right back to Facebook, the algorithm presumes the person isn’t interested in the content.
Despite the slap-down from social media sites, clickbait continues to generate hordes of traffic for sites like Buzzfeed and Upworthy.
In 2014 Facebook began cleaning up its newsfeeds, eliminating both organic posts and advertisements that were deemed to be “spammy” and allowing users more control over the types of posts they see. While the exact specifications of its quality analyses are not made public, there has been a significant decline in clickbait-style articles in most users’ newsfeeds.
The combination of these efforts has led to a decline in the social shareability and overall visibility of these articles, throttling their potential impact.
However, the association that clicks = money still remains.
Marking a major shift in the clickbait trend, Upworthy hired a new editorial director to take over the company’s content operations.
In a startling move, she immediately laid off several content “curators” responsible for generating this type of material, and hired replacements who serve as quality, talented writers.
As one of the biggest clickbait authorities on the web, this could be a major sign that the combination of Google’s and Facebook’s efforts have finally convinced clickbait artists that it’s time to step up the quality of their work.
As with any major change in trend, it won’t happen all at once.
You can expect to see clickbait articles (or “soft” clickbait) in your news feeds for several years to come.
However, as Google and Facebook become even more adept at filtering out “bad” content and users become wise to clickbait schemes the same way they did Nigerian prince schemes, it’s only a matter of time before they’re gone for good.
If I had to guess, I would suppose 2020 to be the last year of clickbait relevance (though a new form of “baiting” may emerge by that time).
Not much in the content world has changed. Clicks are still important, and good content will always be rewarded.
However, if you’ve been using any type of clickbait tactic to improve your click-through rates, it’s time to stop.
If you continue to use gimmicky, superficial tactics to attract new visitors, it’s only a matter of time before it catches up with you.
Take Upworthy’s move as an inspirational example—reset your focus to center on the development of original, strong material that actually matters to people and does more than trick people into clicking on your backlinks.
Clickbait does have a role in both social and SEO circles. The following tips and tricks should prove helpful as you consider using clickbait as an SEO tactic.
Sensational headlines are ethical when they’re true. It’s possible to make ethical use of sensational headlines when you have a sensational story and write the headline to match. For instance, say you’re writing an article on a startup that reached one million dollars in revenue. The story naturally lends itself to a sensational title like Solopreneur Bootstraps Million Dollar Enterprise From His Mobile Home. In this case, the title is sensational but it was accurately derived from the content.
Misleading headlines diminish trust. A misleading headline will get clicks, but those clicks will be worthless. Once you’ve misled a visitor, you’ve lost their trust. They won’t be likely to make a purchase and you can bet they won’t come back.
You’ll start ranking for low-value or even worthless search phrases. Search engines serve up results based on what’s relevant to a user’s search query. If your headlines don’t match your content, your pages might get buried for not being relevant. Clickbait is often not a way to improve your site’s SEO.
Clickbait makes it hard to rank for specific keywords and phrases. Unless sensationalism is relevant to your content, clickbait will diminish your ability to target specific keywords and phrases. If you’re using clickbait templates for headlines, you’ll be tempted to plug in your targeted keywords even if it doesn’t work.
Vague headlines in the search engines don’t do well. To rank well in the search engines, your headlines need to be specific so they convey clarity to the user. People won’t click on vague page titles in search engines like they will on social media.
Unethical clickbait will make your bounce rate spike. If you care about your bounce rate (and you should), using clickbait to generate traffic is a bad idea. The last thing you want in your SEO campaign is to generate a ton of traffic only to have people bounce. Tricking people into clicking on your ads and search results won’t produce quality leads, returning visitors, or sales.
Think of headlines as bait – not bait-and-switch. Clickbait articles have a reputation for disappointment. Titles like Ten Shocking Things You Never Knew About Cats often turn out to be nothing more than a collection of general facts. This is pure deception, and while it might be forgivable for entertainment websites, it won’t be forgivable for your business.
When you can back up your claims, clickbait provides an advantage. Using large impressive numbers, making controversial claims, and using words like ‘shocking’ and ‘unbelievable’ are acceptable when the content delivers. For example, you might title an article Why I’m Spending $300K on YouTube Ads This Year (And Why You Should Too). Sensational? Yes. However, it’s all true, and the content delivers that truth.
When your content can deliver, clickbait is a genuinely useful SEO tactic.
Whenever you can get a user hooked with a headline, that’s good news for SEO. Hooks get attention in the search engine results pages (SERPS) which leads to traffic. What good is it being on the first page of Google if your page title reads just like everybody else’s? Your titles need to hook people at first glance.
Say someone searches for “how to win a game of checkers.” They’ll see multiple versions of the same page title like, “How to Play Checkers And Win,” “How to Win A Game of Checkers,” and “Tips to Win at Checkers.” When your page title reads, “Beat Your Opponent At Checkers In Five Moves” you’ll get the lion’s share of clicks regardless of rank.
Many people are hesitant to click on sensational titles due to past experiences of disappointment. If anything looks like clickbait, it’s not getting their attention. As a result of this scrutiny, many popular headline formats and phrases are off limits for serious content. Phrases like:
It’s understandable if you’d rather skip sensational headlines completely. Your target audience might mistake your ads for the kind of clickbait that turns out to be a wild goose chase.
However, consider that 80% of readers never make it past the headline, and traffic can increase dramatically due to headlines alone.
You can write a sensational headline without using the typical clickbait formats. Rather than generate curiosity with vague language, be specific.
Derive your headline from your content and tell people what they’re going to learn.
Now that people know how to spot clickbait, if you’re going to use it, make sure the content is worth reading.
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