I apologise. I have oversold myself with that headline. But I bet you couldn’t wait to click and find out what the trick was.
Well, you’re not the only one. Sites like Upworthy have started to forego search engine optimisation in favour of writing headlines that people want to click on, known as “clickbait”. The advantage is that you don’t have to worry about your keywords and your headlines can be more whimsical: clickbait may even herald the return of the pun.
The downside is that clickbait usually promises more than it can deliver. The headlines are so over the top or even a bit deceptive that when the articles or videos don’t deliver, the reader is disappointed.
The writers don’t mind because they’ve already picked up the pageview to sell to advertisers and, beyond that, there are plenty of links to other cool-sounding things that will prick the reader’s curiosity.
Another problem is that clickbait makes headlines formulaic. You can see clickbait techniques used everywhere from Gizmodo (“Nine Facts that Sound Ridiculous but are Actually Completely True”) to the BBC (“Why was Dickens’ dying wish ignored?”).
All this is possible thanks to a change in the way people find new information online. When they’re looking for something specific, they’ll use a search engine, but when they’d like to be surprised with something new, many will turn to social networks. This kind of article (and I’m including Buzzfeed’s lists, Gawker’s style and other clickbait techniques) benefits from the way Facebook’s sharing algorithm prioritises what appears on your friends’ newsfeeds. That’s why there’s little point optimising this kind of viral social content for search engines.
Businesses have realised the power of sites like Upworthy and have started using clickbait articles to market films, products and even political parties. The line between something that is written about, and shared, because it is interesting and something that is written about because money has changed hands is blurring.
Lots of articles have already been written about the spread of clickbait but, in short, it’s used because it works. Until people stop clicking on or sharing these articles, they’re bound to keep appearing.