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Clickbait: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Published on November 20, 2018, at 8:10 a.m.
by Emily Hillhouse.

Clickbait is everywhere — scroll through Twitter, Facebook or any news site, and take in how many headlines boast information one “will not believe” or conceal important details with the promise of answers in exchange for a click.

Gone are the days where the purpose of headlines was to quickly summarize a story. Researchers have found that headlines are becoming less like leads every day, and more like tantalizing advertisements for what can be revealed within a story.

Why is this the case, and what can public relations practitioners do about it?

The answer depends on how one defines “clickbait.” Merriam Webster defines it as “something (such as a headline) designed to make readers want to click on a hyperlink, especially when the link leads to content of dubious value or interest.”

Photo by Fancycrave on Unsplash

Clickbait comes in many different forms, and it is important to distinguish these when discussing the effects of this practice on communication. At its best, clickbait is simply a headline meant to generate interest for readers. At its worst, clickbait is a headline meant to cause harm by spreading false or misleading information for the purpose of increasing page views.

To Jennifer Hester, a SEO specialist and account coordinator at Arketi Group, clickbait is only defined as such when an article “over-promises in its headline and under-delivers in its content,” and “preys on users’ curiosity to drive clicks on its links, especially via social media, but doesn’t have rich, detailed content that the user wants.”

The question of clickbait’s harmfulness lies in how one defines it. Does a headline have to be false or misleading in order to be considered clickbait?

The good
To Hester and many others, it does. But she also recognizes the importance of understanding the nuances in the term’s definition.

“Clickbait isn’t always unethical because people’s definition of it varies,” she said. “Some SEO experts think ‘clickbait’ is just a term that implies compelling headlines. To me, ethical clickbaiting is very possible as long as the content delivers what the headline suggests.”

On very rare occasions, even a misleading headline has been used for good. For example, Twitter user and transgender activist Ashlee Marie Preston used clickbait teasing a false celebrity breakup to link to, the U.S. government’s voter registration site. This launched a trend of clickbait for the purpose of getting people registered to vote in time for the 2018 midterm elections.

The bad
Clickbait is a symptom of the fast changes communicators have made in the increasingly digital world. Over two-thirds of Americans now prefer to get their news from social media. Therefore, clicks equal money for news organizations on these platforms. With roughly six in 10 U.S. adults admitting to reading only the headlines when consuming news on social media, it is no surprise that even reputable online news sites have had to get creative in order to get page views.

This is why one’s main source of news can be just as guilty of clickbait as obscure websites.

Mohammad Yousuf, Ph.D., teaches journalism and programming in the Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Oklahoma. He is a part of the research team which discovered that not only do mainstream media websites use clickbait, but also that their use is increasing each year. According to Yousuf, this trend results in it becoming harder for readers to distinguish between reliable and unreliable news.

“Rising popularity of enticing headlines online are forcing mainstream news media to increasingly adopt this format, which may affect credibility of hard news because this may make hard news and tabloid news look similar in the eyes of users,” Dr. Yousuf said.

For example, in December 2016, CNN published an article with the headline, “Intel analysis shows Putin approved election hacking.” Upon reading the article, however, one will find that the article’s sources simply stated that “the use of the advanced tools suggests Russian President Vladimir Putin was involved in the hacks,” but that they knew of no “specific intelligence that directly ties Putin to the attack.”

Another example comes from Fox News, who in 2011 published an on air and online story with the headline, “Victory Mosque at Ground Zero?” The headline was tantalizing, meant to spark anger in their audience, and ultimately false. What they were reporting on was actually an Islamic cultural center, not a mosque, being built near the World Trade Center, not at it. Fox readers and listeners would not have learned these facts unless they turned to another source, as Fox never acknowledged this report’s inaccuracies.

While these are just two notable examples, news outlets publish sensationalized and misleading headlines every day. While this type of clickbait is common, it does not come without negative effects.

“It affects the work of SEO practitioners and public relations practitioners as a whole because it devalues the content we spend time consciously and carefully creating for our clients,” Hester said. “It affects what we do negatively because it often garners more attention than other online articles and spoils public opinion on one of our most valuable tactics: writing online.”

The ugly
Clickbait may be contaminating the news media landscape. But, is it really getting worse as technology advances and the number of media consumers who get their news digitally increases?

Photo via U.S. Office of The Historian:

Note that sensationalized news, or yellow journalism, existed long before the internet entered the equation. At its high point in the late 19th century, its negative influence caused significant damage. For example, following an explosion on board the battleship USS Maine in February 1898, Hearst and Pulitzer newspapers publishers falsely pinned the catastrophe on Spanish forces. Their yellow journalism and warmongering resulted in intense public support for war. Less than four months later, the U.S. entered war with Spain.

What’s the verdict?
At the end of the day, clicks equal money, but they also lead to measurable exposure, something PR practitioners are keen on gathering. Even if a client is looking to increase clicks, it is still possible to write enticing headlines while staying true to the PR profession’s values.

To do this, Hester recommends PR writers start strong with a compelling topic.

“By doing a little research into the popularity and search volume on a subject and then generating two to five keywords and keyword phrases that apply, you’ll be ready to produce stronger content than your counterparts already,” she said.

More tips she recommends include avoiding getting penalized by Google for “keyword stuffing,” which is the practice of unnaturally overfilling content with keywords. Hester also highlights the importance of writing content with at least 800 words.

Writing the headline should be the last step in one’s writing, according to Hester. This ensures that the headline “summarizes your article and is enticing without overpromising.”

“You can use emotional language or enticing numbers as long as they’re descriptive and not misleading,” she said.

In order to ensure a client gets clicks on a blog post or story in an ethical manner, one must avoid the temptation to sensationalize, something that should not be new territory to the ethical practitioner. The clickbait issue is just another example of the same dilemma that PR practitioners have always faced, and it won’t be the last.

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