What is Clickbait?

My definition is the authoritative answer. Period. Journalists and their readers debate about what is clickbait, and also linkbait, and whether or not they are the same. They most certainly are not, and neither has a place in responsible journalism.

Both are constructs of the Google free economy—that is giving away valuable content subsidized by online advertising to get high search ranking. Problem: There is too much content, and too much of it alike, for ads to financially support. Excessive ad space means lower page rates and greater competition for advertisers. The shortage encourages even more clickbaiting and linkbaiting, which generate more pointless posts that suck limited advertising from high-value news content. 

Clickbait and linkbait also corrupt longstanding, and sensible practices regarding headline writing that negatively affect audience attitudes about what is valuable content. Good headlines should be aggressive or provocative, such that they pull people to read the story. Emphasis: Read. Deliver value. Clickbait and linkbait headlines and stories aren’t written for people but for Google—to capture search ranking and pageviews.

Now To Those Definitions
Clickbait: A story with provocative headline which major, or more often only, purpose is to generate clicks. The content behind is valueless to the majority, if not all, readers, who may regret ever clicking. Top-10 and long slideshow posts are excellent examples of stories seeking clicks rather than readers.

Linkbait: A story with provocative headline meant to raise search ranking and to capture long-term clicks. Typically the posts will pose questions—”Is my dick size normal?”—that someone might ask in search or they will pique curiosity—”Meet the man with two penises” or “You won’t believe this guy has two penises, and they’re not the same size”. Particularly in the latter hypothetical example, the editorial objective is social sharing, which generates short-term pageviews and long-term valuable linkbacks that can benefit search page rank.

Funny thing, clickbaiting and linkbaiting follow one of the major principles of good writing: Identify your audience and write for it. Before the Internet: Presumed to be people. Clinkbaiters and linkbaiters do write for their audience. Google. Search. Algorithms. Humans are wayfares, not the destination.

But in reaching their audience, the writers create a wasteland of useless content that clogs the search mechanism, demeans content written for humans to read, and fractures the wobbly Google free economy.

Evils of Google Economics
You must understand: Contrary to popular convention, Craigslist did not destroy the newspaper business by giving away the equivalent of classifieds for free. The Google free economy swings the beheading axe. With exception of broadcast, news organizations generally do not control advertising online like they did in print. As explained in my book Responsible Reporting: Field Guide for Bloggers, Journalists, and Other Online News Gatherers:

Google accounted for 32 percent of global net digital ad revenues in 2013—40 percent in the United States, according to eMarketer. Mobile is considerably greater: 48.8 percent globally and 41.5 percent in the United States.

“Digital advertising in the U.S. is a $43 billion market. Most of those ad dollars, though, go to a handful of large technology firms, such as Facebook and Google. Pew Research estimates that news properties lay claim to, at minimum, roughly $5 billion—or 12 percent—of the total digital ad market”. Stated differently: A large number advertisers prefer spending on search, banner, and related digital ad products provided by big techs rather than direct deals with media companies.

Clickbaiters and linkbaiters feed content to the Google free economy, which sets the value at zero. Google invests nothing to create the content, just the mechanisms to wrap contextual advertising around it.

Some of my past posts you should read to better understand the Google free economy:

Readers Rightly Jaded
I don’t advocate either baiting practice and never ever use them, even though commenters accuse me and other journalists of doing so. Clickbaiters and linkbaiters twist longstanding headline-writing practices designed to entice people to stop and read this over that, which greatly differs from clicking solely to gain something from Google. I tell news gatherers in my book:

Snappy and provocative headlines predate the Internet by a century or so. Your goal is the same as print-era journalists—to get people to stop and read. Provocative headlines capture and engage audience. A solidly sourced and reported story behind a provocative hed is altogether different from linkbait. Your objective is audience, not quick clicks or links.

I came to write this post because yesterday someone shared to my social network The Atlantic story “It’s Everywhere, the Clickbait“, with dek “Readers are quick to use the label to castigate publications. What is clickbait, and what isn’t?” That’s exactly the problem: We the people producing content meant to be read and to enrich—for which there is real reporting and analysis—are lumped together with those who don’t.

James Hamblin and I agree. He writes: “I do want people to read the articles I write and edit. An engaging headline is part of that, and so is choosing an engaging topic, and executing it in an engaging way”.

The headlines he writes, and mine also, have a very different purpose than those that might on occasion seem similar to clickbait and linkbait: To be read rather than clicked or linked. I seek audience, not clicks. James writes:

Among cynical readers given to labeling everything clickbait, there seems to be an assumption that editors and writers live and die by the number of clicks they generate. That’s rarely true…Taking time to create awesome work, only writing when you have something important (or otherwise fabulous) to say, is what writers and editors want, too.

Journalism is a tough profession during the second decade of the 21st Century. But the whole industry benefits if just a few news gatherers choose to change the rules. The choice is simple: Empower the Google free economy, or, by reporting responsibly, liberate the audience from aggregators, clickbaiters, linkbaiters, and rumormongers. The task is daunting.