A Comprehensive Guide to Clickbait


Published: February 26, 2020 (Updated: March 23, 2020)

In this article… 


In this day and age, most users are accustomed to seeing clickbait in every corner of the internet. Though clickbait has earned a bad reputation, when done correctly, the techniques can be an effective marketing tool that will increase your brand’s awareness and build relationships with your audience. This article explains what clickbait is, why businesses use it, how you can tell the difference between good and bad clickbait, and provides examples of effective and ineffective clickbait headlines.

What Is Clickbait? 

Sometimes referred to as click bait, clickbait is a piece of hyperlinked web content with the sole intent of luring visitors to another site, therefore generating revenue from online advertising. In other words, as the name suggests, clickbait creators design this content to increase the likelihood that a reader will notice it, click on it, and then eventually share it with their personal network. 

Though a majority of online content is crafted to gain attention and maximize the number of shares, clickbait is a bit different because it uses psychological strategies to manipulate users with provocative headlines and then often fails to deliver on the type of content promised to the user. In order to entice viewers and promote click-throughs, clickbait often employs sensationalist headlines. Professionals design these headlines to stand out and pique someone’s interest. 

Click-through is the technical term used to describe instances when a reader follows a link that they find on a site. The intention here is to capitalize on what is known as the curiosity gap. In other words, the headline gives just the right amount of information to inspire curiosity in the reader, but they would have to click through to the linked content to learn any real information and truly satisfy their interest. The problem here is that, as was already mentioned, clickbait often comes up short, leaving the audience feeling irritated and betrayed.

An extremely common type of clickbait content is what is known as a listicle. This category of clickbait focuses on pulling content from various sources, therefore targeting a larger audience and attracting them to one website.

The History of Clickbait

Though the development of the Internet has altered its appearance, the concepts behind clickbait have been around for quite some time. For example, similar ideas are present in an old marketing strategy called bait-and-switch that uses dishonesty to lure customers.

Similarly, many of the techniques used in clickbait trace back to yellow journalism, a technique commonly found in tabloids to sell more papers. These publications rely on sensationalism, scandals, and exaggerated news stories to create headlines. Additionally, most of the stories found in tabloids are neither legitimate nor well-researched because the journalists that write them often use what is known as checkbook journalism, in which journalists pay their sources for a story without authenticating it first. Though it does still occur, the United States and much of the world consider this practice unethical.

Though techniques like bait-and-switch and yellow journalism have helped shape clickbait, linkbaiting is perhaps the strategy that is most closely related. Linkbait has been around for some time and is the practice of designing content that will encourage other websites to link back to the published piece, which results in more online traffic. SEO’s rules and ethics have made linkbaiting much less prevalent, but external links are still quite common for good content.

Tabloid Counter at a store with lots of magazines

Image via  Flickr  by Robert Couse-Baker.

Common Characteristics of Clickbait

Though there is such a thing as bad clickbait, reputable sources use many of the attributes of clickbait are in order to make their online content more enticing. There are some common qualities found in all types of clickbait, such as:

  • Content that inspires social sharing
  • Headlines that strongly appeal to specific and strong emotions, like humor or outrage
  • Distinct or funny images and videos
  • Content that is easy to skim
  • Headlines that grab your attention and leave you wanting more information
  • Articles that are typically 300 words or less
  • Unoriginal content that provides an embedded video that you could find on other platforms or a summarization of a longer article 

It’s important to note that clickbait doesn’t always possess every single one of these characteristics, but there are usually at least a few present.

Concepts That Share Clickbait Characteristics

Here are a few examples of strategies that are similar to clickbait with minor differences in the execution and intent:

  • Rickrolling: Like clickbait, rickrolling (also called rick-rolling) uses manipulation, but the intent is to make a joke instead of exploit users. This Internet prank uses memes as a type of bait and switch by providing hyperlinks that are disguised as other content that, when clicked on, leads the user to the music video for Rick Astley’s 1987 hit “Never Gonna Give You Up.” Even though the term specifically refers to a prank involving this song and artist, many employ this technique to trick users, make them laugh, and encourage them to share content designed to prank their friends.
  • Click fraud: Though clickbait is sometimes a form of fraud, click fraud is a type of online misrepresentation that employs workers or robots to repeatedly click on the pay per click (PPC) ads found on their sites so that they can generate more income.

Why Does Clickbait Work?

With all of the negativity surrounding clickbait, it can be difficult to understand why it works at all. Here are just a few of the reasons why clickbait techniques are so effective at grabbing an audience’s attention:

People Dislike Ambiguity

All humans have an innate fear of the unknown that the limbic system controls. In an effort to continuously keep a lookout for threats or changes in the environment, the limbic system identifies and responds to ambiguous stimuli without you even realizing it. When you notice something that leaves you wondering, like a clickbait headline, your brain kicks into high gear and pushes you to make sure that there is no threat.

Our Brains Are More Likely to Remember Unfinished Tasks

A study conducted by Bluma Zeigarnik, a Lithuanian psychologist, in 1927 found that people remember interrupted tasks in greater detail than uninterrupted tasks, a phenomenon now known as the Zeigarnik effect. Though clickbait is more commonly viewed as an interruption, the brain views the headlines as something potentially important that was unknown. Even if you are able to ignore the impulse, the desire to return to the task of opening and reading the interesting article is probably still there.

People Have a Fear of Missing Out

Commonly referred to as FOMO, most people are afraid that they may miss out on something that everyone else knows, is doing, or has access to. Clickbait headlines that evoke emotional responses leave people feeling like if they don’t click on the article, they will literally miss out on whatever the headline promises is on the other side. 

Though the phenomenon is nothing new, social media has created a generation and culture that is hyper-sensitive to this emotion by offering multiple platforms in which you can experience the fear that you may miss something really good if you don’t check your profile, watch a video, or click on an article.

Why Do Businesses Use Clickbait? 

Simply put, marketing agencies and business owners alike use clickbait because it’s a fairly easy way to increase web traffic and yield results. Commonly, these companies rely on listicles that focus on compiling industry-specific information for users, which results in saving the audience time and resources and an increase in traffic for the creator. This eventually improves the site’s presence on search engines, making it beneficial for all parties involved. 

Another option for increasing web traffic is content promotion. Using this technique,  relevant third-party websites publish your company’s content on their site, therefore increasing your company’s exposure. Though clickbait can improve a company’s visibility, it’s a little more difficult to determine whether this improvement in traffic directly results in an increase in sales and subsequent conversion rates.

How Clickbait Is Used

You can use clickbait techniques for a myriad of reasons, both good and evil. Many businesses use it for good as a way to market valuable content to a larger audience. Others may use it for more neutral reasons, like to promote average quality content in order to generate more revenue. Then there’s the evil. There are those that use clickbait to promote scams, phishing sites, and links to malware (malicious software).

Much like advertisers, malicious individuals use these techniques to reach as many people as possible. These scammers and hackers hope that by getting unsuspecting users to click on a link they can then trick them into visiting a phishing site or convince them to download and install malware onto their computer.

How Can You Tell Good Clickbait From Bad Clickbait?

There are a few ways that you can distinguish between clickbait that is being used for good and clickbait that is being used for evil. Here are some things to look out for that will help you identify bad clickbait:

The Clickbait Is Promoting Something That Sounds Too Good to Be Real

When a scammer is promoting one of their scams, they often use clickbait techniques to advertise a deal that sounds way too good for it to be true. These scams use headlines like, “Is The Price of This Apple Watch Real or a Typo? Buy One Now Before They Realize and Fix It!” Once users click the link, they’re taken to a counterfeit retail website where the scammers can then steal their credit card information as they try to purchase a ridiculously cheap Apple Watch.

It Redirects Users to Another Site That is Related to the Clickbait Story

Phishers (individuals that use deception to gain access to your personal information) commonly use clickbait headlines to get the attention of users before they redirect them to another site where they can steal their personal details. Phishers often use headlines like “When You Find Out What This Bank Did You’ll Want to Withdraw All of Your Money!” There’s usually a link in the content that takes innocent victims to an artificial version of the bank’s website that has been created to gather their personal or banking information.

Users Are Asked to Download Something Before They Can View the Content

Hackers and scammers are also pretty fond of claiming that by clicking the link users will be able to see a celebrity or well-known personality doing something scandalous, usually in the form of a video. When using this clickbait technique, there’s often a headline that says something like “When You See What [Famous Person] Did to This Dog, You’ll Freak!” 

Once the user clicks on the link, they often find that they need to install an app before gaining access to the video. Spoiler alert: The video doesn’t exist. The whole thing was a scam to convince users to install malware on their computers.

The Benefits of Clickbait

Generally speaking, clickbait gains attention but lacks substance. However, it does offer some benefits, such as:

Increase in Page Views

Business owners create this type of content specifically to generate more page views, so it shouldn’t be surprising that that is its primary benefit. If you are primarily looking to drive more traffic to your site, clickbait can be an effective solution. Just make sure that you use some sort of analytics software so that you are able to track the sources of your online traffic. And remember that there are a ton of options for making shareable, interactive content that will entice users and enrich their experience with your company.

Higher Likelihood for Shares

Individuals expertly craft the headlines used in clickbait to pique people’s attention and encourage users to share the content on their own social media platforms. But you’ll have to be careful because people are cautious about what they share since it usually reflects on their own personality and character. Clickbait increases the chances of being shared by creating a strong emotional response in the reader. Many believe that there are six emotions that you can target to manipulate an audience into social sharing:

  • Shock
  • Joy
  • Disgust
  • Sadness
  • Anger
  • Fear

iPhone Screen with apps on it including Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Pinterest

Image via  Flickr  by Jason A. Howie.

Improved Brand Awareness

Obviously, more page views and shares will inevitably result in an increased awareness of your brand. Clickbait can be an extremely effective tool for making your brand recognizable by people, which is an important aspect of content marketing. Content creation and brand awareness go hand-in-hand because when a reader remembers your content, they will eventually begin to trust you and establish a relationship with your brand, which often results in them one day converting into a customer. 

Though creating viral content is perhaps the most effective way to increase brand awareness, content that encourages shares on social media and visits to your page will improve your brand’s visibility just as effectively.

The Disadvantages of Clickbait

As with most content marketing techniques, clickbait can be a valuable tool but comes with its fair share of challenges, such as:

People Have Become Desensitized

When clickbait was first developed, it was extremely effective due to its novelty. However, its popularity has grown exponentially over the years which has created an audience that is less easy to impress with this type of content. Phrases commonly used in headlines, such as “with this one strange trick” or “their reaction is priceless” has created an over-saturated market with highly cynical audiences. As more and more companies resort to clickbait strategies, it has created a whole lot of noise and very little interest.

Misrepresentation Damages a Brand’s Image

If you purposefully mislead your audience by offering a clickbait headline that fails to deliver, your brand image will quickly disintegrate. Not only will your audience become annoyed, but they will also likely lose trust in your brand. Though your deception may attract page views, the reader will probably leave the page quickly once they realize that it has deceived them and will begin to view your brand negatively. Ultimately, you may encourage more views, but the potential damage to your brand is probably not worth it.

Page Views are Relatively Unimportant

While quite a few content marketers are beginning to hone their clickbait abilities, more and more experts are beginning to come to the realization that page views have become increasingly unimportant. These industry professionals are finding that they should place more focus on the reader’s attention and engagement when measuring the success of content. 

A popular metric for this called “total time reading” estimates the amount of time that the average person spends with each piece of content. Using this information, companies can figure out which of their posts readers found the most engaging. Aside from using a metric that measures the total attention given to each piece, experts are also beginning to examine the total attention dedicated to a website. This allows companies to examine what aspects of their site are gaining the most interest.

Search Engines Could Punish Your Website

In an effort to discourage fake news, duplicate content, and clickbait, search engines like Google continuously develop algorithms that establish strict criteria for the results shown to users, such as a content’s overall quality. When a search engine suspects websites and pages of having content that is low quality, the search engine pushes their ranking down on the results pages.

In addition to content quality, search engines also analyze the bounce rate associated with a webpage or site. In other words, if a high volume of users has gone to a webpage, realized the content was pointless and then immediately “bounced” away from the site instead of redirecting to another page, search engines usually classify this content as invaluable to users. 

Aside from search engines, social media platforms have also taken measures to decrease the prevalence of clickbait on their sites. Facebook, for example, released an update to their algorithm that is able to identify when a company posts clickbait on the site and then keeps those posts from being featured on people’s news feeds.

Examples of Clickbait Titles

Clickbait titles can come in all forms, but they typically rely on provocative, catchy and sensational wording that is intentionally crafted to pique a viewer’s interest. Here are a few examples of ineffective and effective clickbait titles:

Ineffective Clickbait Titles

There are likely more examples of bad clickbait titles than there are good. Here are some examples of headlines that will probably make you laugh more than they’ll make you click:

  • “Once You See This You’ll Never Look at Dogs the Same”
  • “After She Called the Cops, You’ll Never Believe What She Did Next”
  • “You’ll Freak Once You See What This Fast Food Chain Did”
  • “She Finally Admitted This Shocking Secret That Tore Her Family Apart”
  • “The Ugly Truth That This Grocery Chain Doesn’t Want You to Know”

Effective Clickbait Titles

When you decide to adopt clickbait techniques for your marketing strategy, it’s important that you choose headlines that intrigue and then pair it with content that delivers. Here are some examples of effective clickbait titles:

  • “12 Things Every Parent Should Remember”
  • “The Ultimate Guide to Marketing Strategies”
  • “10 Jobs That Will Enrich Your Life”
  • “The 5 Documentaries You Have to Watch Before You Die”
  • “30 Must-Have Products That Will Improve Your Productivity”

Whether you are considering adopting clickbait techniques to improve your search engine results or to increase your page views, you’ll be faced with a fair share of advantages and disadvantages. It’s extremely important that you take the time to research how to effectively employ this marketing tool before adopting it and remember to always prioritize the relationship with your audience by placing your focus on offering them valuable, quality content that establishes trust.


Read More About Copy