The Great Clickbait Debate

PushON | September 5th 2014

If you’ve attended a search conference or read any marketing blog over the last few years, you’ll have been lucky to avoid the word content. Content has always been central to any SEO approach, though it’s use has evolved as we’ve fought with regular Google algorithm updates to move from 300 word SEO articles and obsessions over keyword density to a need to create high quality, authoritative and ultimately viral content.

Why is content important? In times gone by “SEO articles” were unlikely to have been read by their intended user due to being featured on article directory sites or low subscribed blogs where the intention was purely to gain a link. With this low quality approach quashed by Google’s Penguin and Panda updates, as well as by Matt Cutts’ “stick a fork in guest blogging” decree at the start of this year, content became even more important as it was clear that Google wanted to provide users with quality results and experiences.

It is no surprise that there is a correlation between top ranking search results and highly shared content; what better indication can online users provide to Google of a high quality piece of content than a mass of social signals in addition to links. The challenge for brands first of all is to get their content in front of the right people and then encourage them to view it. Whilst we’re regularly testing which approaches to outreach and content sharing work most effectively, one of the variables we’ve tested less is the actual headline. As one of the first things users see, whether during outreach, within search or on social media, the headline has the potential to gain or lose a visit immediately. This is where the term clickbait comes in.

Clickbait content is something we’re becoming more and more exposed to around the web; you’ll most likely have seen sponsored links at the bottom of articles across news sites. The use of ‘native advertising’ through paid services such as Taboola and Outbrain is becoming one of the most popular ways for publishers to share their content, much in the same way that brands heavily have to spend on social media in order to generate engagement and clicks. As content marketing has continued to grow over the past few years people have become more aware of the term clickbait, resulting in its recent addition to the Oxford English dictionary. Does the fact that people are now aware of it mean that it’s becoming accepted as an approach, or could awareness itself bring suspicion of content (such as that above) that is clearly there to try encourage us to click through?

Last year we wrote about a journalist who has bemoaned the role of SEOs and their role in the death of the artistic headline. His point was that keyword stuffing in titles and URLs for an SEO benefit reduced the creativity of online headlines. Whilst we rebuked this argument, pointing out how print journalism appeared to have lost that creative spark itself, the growing trend for both on and offline publications is a desire for sensationalism. There’s no need for an introduction of our first example, and perhaps the champion of sensationalism and click bait content: The Daily Mail.

They have transformed the way users behave online, to the point that they now churn out content at an alarming rate. Their search visibility over the last few years has grown at a pretty impressive rate, to the point that a search for any current new story will usually return one of their articles in a fairly prominent position; this could also be due to other news sites such as The Sun taking the majority of their content behind a paywall, but that’s a whole new topic for us to delve into on another Friday.

The question we have to ask ourselves as marketers is what’s more important: the content or the headline? Whilst that’s not even a debate we should have to consider (I’d say content, without a doubt) it’s interesting to think what would compel Daily Mail readers to go back to the site day after day if this was what they were greeted with:

(sourced from @danbarker, there’s more on the Poke)

Yet people do visit their site, and not only that, they regularly share their content! Below are the top shared stories from the Daily Mail over the last 12 months: sex, death, freak occurrences and pets. It could be argued that the headlines themselves are heavily clickbaited, but that’s no surprise considering the sensationalist angle of the first few stories at least.

Buzzfeed is another site that has adopted clickbait style content well, seeing their search visibility quadruple over the last 2 years. I’m sure many of you will have seen an interactive quiz or a randomly numbered list of pictures; I’d be surprised if you haven’t considering how well their articles are shared – over 5m social shares last year for ‘What Career Should You Actually Have’.  Does this say more about the appeal of the content or the pull of their headlines?

Here’s an interesting finding for you online feline fiends; there were two dog articles in the top 20 posts from the Daily Mail and Buzzfeed over the last year compared to just one cat post. Well, the cat’s out the bag now, isn’t it?

Facebook has recently announced a change to its newsfeed algorithm, as covered on Marketing Land, that will see clickbait-type headlines reduced. They’re measuring the length of time that people spend reading an article as a measure of how valuable it is, with the suggestion that some forms of clickbait tend to be lower quality content; they are likely to be those that are picture-heavy. The other metric they‘re planning to use to measure the value of any article is the volume of shares and engagement it gets. Whilst this is clearly an important measure, the level of engagement from some of the Daily Mail’s sensational articles for example, is likely to still be high due to the nature of the stories and their ability to generate comments and discussion (whether positive or negative).

So, back to what this means for us as marketers? Earlier we speculated as to whether it’s a choice between a headline or quality content, but it’s not quite as simple as that. Our team has discussed why content is important and what factors are most important for a successfully shared article.

CharlieClickbait headlines are really just Heat headlines on steroids. I think they become a problem where there’s a dissonance between the promise and the delivered goods, and unfortunately most of the stuff we’re promised in the typical clickbait headline doesn’t lead to content deserving of the title. If a sensational headline link took you to a truly sensational story, you wouldn’t complain.

You can search online to find the formula for a perfect headline – there are “tricks” and “secrets” aplenty. Reading them will change your life … forever. Using adjectives like “Mind-blowing”. Writing that X will blow your mind. Saying “You won’t believe X”. “See what happened when X met Y”. “Z will make you cry”. You’ve already seen them all.

Unfortunately it would appear that even respected news sources have taken the bait. I first discovered Slate via the online magazine’s political articles and would regularly click their Twitter links because they would usually take me to find something new and interesting. Unfortunately they’ve gone to the grey side. The site still hosts some superb articles but they’re using their good name to push stuff I’d describe as gossipy and trivial, smattered with those sensationalist buzzwords. So I don’t really click them any more, and I’m sure thousands of others don’t either.

Sure, the economics of running an online magazine and paying for good journalists will put pressure on any publishing outfit. But I suspect tricking readers into visiting the site simply to boost ad revenue will only work as long as the source’s reputation remains intact. The magazines that print salacious celebrity gossip are safest in this respect, as those who genuinely find celebrity gossip scandalous won’t be disappointed by sensationalist headlines.

Vice is a popular resource that will often use very leading headlines on social media to get you to link to the articles, but in general the journalism is pretty good quality and the articles can be genuinely shocking. Despite spoof Twitter accounts like @vice_is_hip taking digs at the magazine, I think Vice does live up to its promises – and seems to be incredibly successful.

But has the concept peaked? I refer you to Downworthy, a Chrome plugin that replaces certain sensationalist phrases with their truer interpretations so you never have to see them on your screen again.

And then there’s ClickHole, brought to you by the comedy geniuses behind The Onion. It’s essentially page on page of content that could at first glance appear to be genuine but which reveals itself (to the unwary, at least) as spoof. Examples: “Which Blade of Grass are You?” “His Classmates Have Always Bullied Him, But Wait Till They Hear His Angelic Singing Voice” and “23 Insanely Mind-Blowing Facts About The Class Of 2018”.

The Twitter account Saved you a Click tells you the truth behind the linkbait titles (often by simply giving an answer).

There isn’t a formula for writing a great headline. It’s a case of squeezing the essence out of the story and presenting it in a way that tells the target readership just enough to want to learn more. Some work, some don’t, but this has been the case ever since people started trying to sell stories.

Perhaps these attempts to snip the linkbait fishing lines will remain as spoofs alongside the real things, just as Viz didn’t torpedo the tabloids it mocked. But to me it’s more likely that people will simply start to wise up to the same old tricks and turn their backs on them. Once companies stop making money out of them, they’ll probably die out. It’s probably already happening, and that can only be a good thing for those of us who strive to create quality content about cats.

Charlie Hankers, Copywriter