What is clickbait and should you use it?

The word ‘clickbait’ is used everyday on the internet. But what does clickbait actually mean, why do people use it, and should you avoid it?

Looking at clickbait

Clickbait. You know the word. You’ve seen the headlines: ‘FORMER HOLLYWOOD STAR NOW LOOKS LIKE THIS – CAN YOU BELIEVE IT?’ But what exactly is clickbait, why is it so controversial, and why do people keep using it? Let’s take a look today. 

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What does clickbait mean?

What is clickbait, exactly? Well, it does what it says on the can: it baits viewers into clicking something. This is usually done with a misleading thumbnail, headline, or description. As a result, the ingredients of a clickbait article or piece of content never live up to the promise of the initial ‘sell.’ 

Instead of presenting factual information, clickbait pulls at your heartstrings, scratches an itch in your brain. It’ll often use emotive words – ‘X Singer SLAMS former bandmate’ is much more interesting than ‘Vocalist wishes ex-bandmate well, says band is still going strong.’ 

Getting caught by clickbait

When you click on a clickbait article, it’s usually full of spammy-looking ads, which will often outweigh the 'real' information presented on the page. Clickbait is common in search engine results and YouTube, but you’ll also find it spread across ads, social media, email, and more. 

What’s the point of clickbait?

People use clickbait to drive views and gather clicks. More often than not, websites hosting clickbait will receive revenue from advertisers. The more click-through they get, the more people see the ads, and the more money the website receives. It’s in these websites’ best interests to herd people to these articles.

Why is clickbait so bad?

Clickbait causes distrust. If audiences keep getting burnt by these articles, they’ll stop relying on the sites and channels creating them.

From a numbers standpoint, clickbait will increase a website’s bounce rate. Viewers may end up on a clickbait article or video, but if it’s not what they were promised, they’ll not take action once they’re there. So, while clickbait might work purely for traffic from first-time clickers, you’ll not see many conversions or return visits. 

Reacting to clickbait

Using clickbait can also harm your website’s SEO ranking. Search engines have gotten smarter, and can now tell the difference between genuine content and clickbaity fluff. If you get caught out, your ranking in search engines could plummet. 

More than anything, though, using clickbait contributes to misinformation. The term ‘fake news’ gained popularity in the 2010s, as the rise in internet usage led to audiences believing unverified information. It’s an uncertain landscape out there, and clickbait muddies the waters. 

How common is clickbait?

Clickbait is alarmingly common. A survey in 2018 showed that more than 30% of content, from both reliable and unreliable sources, fell under the banner of clickbait. You can only imagine that the number’s gone up since then! 

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Why does clickbait work?

Clickbait works for three reasons, and if you fall for it, that’s no shame on you – it’s how our brains are wired! Here are the three reasons clickbait works so well:

  1. It fills the curiosity gap: Clickbait usually teases some shocking or life-changing knowledge. It never gives you this once you click it, but the headline alone activates your curiosity. 
  2. It promises instant gratification: If you click on it, you’ll immediately know the answer, right? Wrong, but that’s what the headline suggests. 
  3. It triggers FOMO: Clickbait preys on the fear of missing out. If you see an article about a celebrity or popular news item, you’ll likely be curious – what if everyone else knows this stuff, but you don’t? 

Why do YouTubers use clickbait?

You’ll often see clickbait discussed in relation to YouTube thumbnails: large, colorful images with titles that promise viewers the moon on a stick. Like clickbait articles, they rarely live up to the initial hype. 

However, if the YouTube content is still entertaining, viewers might stay. Or, they may believe that the headline subject is buried somewhere in the video – they just have to get through ten minutes of other things first. Either way, the YouTuber will receive ad revenue, and if people keep falling for their clickbait, they’ll keep doing it.

Watching clickbait videos

How do you spot clickbait?

You can find clickbait everywhere, and if you know what to look for, it’s easy to spot and avoid. Here are the main features you’ll find in clickbait:

  • The headline: It’s usually too good to be true, and will often be all- or partially capitalized. It'll likely rely on emotion, using adjectives like ‘SHOCKING’ and ‘MIND-BLOWING.’ If it looks spammy, trust your gut.
  • You can’t find the content you came for: A ‘real’ article or video will summarize or reference the content at the beginning, to keep you interested and let you know what you’re in for. Clickbait won’t do this. It will either skip the headline topic or bury it deep within the content. 
  • The content doesn’t relate to the headline: It’s one thing to hide the headline, but it’s another thing to ignore it completely. That’s what some clickbait content does, though. You’ll click on something that claims to give you 29 reasons to start working out in the morning, but the video is just a ten-minute infomercial for a new fitness app. 
  • Buttons or links: If you’re prompted to click extra buttons or links to get to the goodies, you’re best off leaving the page and finding other content. These kinds of links can even be dangerous, leading to unsecure sites with potential viruses. 
Looking at clickbait

Should you use clickbait tactics?

While we’d discourage tricking people with actual clickbait, there’s some value in the tactics behind it. After all, the reason people fall for clickbait is because it’s so good at reeling them in. 

So, what if you use the tricks and techniques behind clickbait, but for content that actually delivers?

Let’s finish with some pointers on how to use clickbait-style tactics in a positive way:

  • Numbered lists: Lots of clickbait will feature numbered headlines – ‘Here are 7 things you NEED to know about yeast.’ People love listicle content, though, which is why they click. If you create structured, list-based content that‌ properly answers what you’ve put in the headline, you’ll stand a good chance of holding people’s attention to the end. 
  • Capitalized keywords: A full-caps headline might be a bit much, but you could consider capitalizing a certain keyword. See how it looks on the screen, and if it’s a bit much, maybe skip the caps. 
  • Over-the-top thumbnails: While outright lying in the thumbnail is a no-no, there’s nothing wrong with creating an attention-grabbing thumbnail or header image. You can use this opportunity to convey the ‘vibe’ of the video or content, without straight-up misleading people. Some of the most-subscribed YouTubers, like MrBeast, balance this well – his thumbnails and headlines are wild, but the content backs it up. 

So, you’ve learned what clickbait is, why people use it, how to spot it, and how to leverage some of its tactics to improve your genuine content.

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