What's clickbait? It's loosely defined as Web-based content that is designed to attract your attention through a catchy, provocative, shocking headline, and get you to click on it. Things like quality, accuracy or even truth aren’t normally part of the equation. The headlines give you just enough information to pique your curiosity, but not enough to finish the story, and they all seem to follow a particular structure:
- You won't BELIEVE what Justin Bieber wore last night!!!
- This kid went went to hug a giraffe. What happens next will blow your mind!!!
- These 4 facts about eye gunk will change the way you look at life FOREVER!!!
- Everyone laughed when she first walked on stage. But then she opened her mouth!!!
- What this rescued beagle can do with a xylophone will make you cry!!!
What happens once you click on it? Rarely do you ever get what you hoped for. Most of the time, you click through, only to be greeted by a ton of popup ads and other annoying, sometimes nasty stuff. The pages are often designed as slide shows instead of all-in-one pages, which forces us to click through multiple pages. This drives page views up, and creates even more ways to serve up - and charge for - ads.
Clickbait is frequently inserted into social media streams, often worded and structured to look like legitimate news or entertainment content.
Since content quality has nothing to do with it, you often get dumped onto a popup-laden page, only to realize you’ve been “had”. Many clickbait victims thus spend very little time on the site - which is becoming an important metric in the legitimate web industry’s efforts to clean it up.
Why it exists: Clickbait is designed to serve up ads. It can even install adware on your computer or device, which then serves up MORE ads long after you’ve visited the site. It's all about revenue generation, not about quality content or building lasting advertiser/customer relationships.
And it gets worse: Some clickbait also serves up spyware and malware. Hackers use the popularity of clickbait - and our willingness to follow up on anything that includes Justin Bieber, Taylor Swift, Donald Trump or any of the Kardashians - to target potential victims by redirecting them to rogue websites that secretly install malevolent software in what’s often called a “drive-by” attack.
Who’s doing it? Some of the most popular websites today - including Buzzfeed, Upworthy and Diply - use clickbait tactics to drive traffic. These are the legit players. Plenty of other sketchy sites are doing the same thing, fighting for your attention and not always playing by the rules. Legit or not, advertisers follow traffic. And many of them don't much care how that traffic is generated.
What’s being done to rein it in? Facebook announced last year it’s taking steps to reduce the impact of clickbait. For starters, it’s tracking how long you spend on a site after you’ve clicked it from Facebook. Short visits are a clear sign of clickbait. Google also regularly updates its algorithms to prioritize legitimate content and reduce the possibility of being “fooled” by clickbait.
Is that enough? No. We shouldn't rely on the web giants to save us from ourselves. Ultimately, we're responsible for ourselves, and it’s up to us to recognize the signs and patterns of clickbait and break ourselves of the habit. The payoff is never what the headlines promise, and clicking on them can often expose us to unnecessary risk - like hacking and identity theft. It's time for all of us to smarten up.
Want to learn more? Here's the video of that Canada AM interview: