The Oxford English dictionary defines clickbait as "content whose main purpose is to attract attention and encourage visitors to click on a link to a particular web page."
What could possibly be wrong with getting as much traffic as possible to your website? While there are many methods used by marketers to increase incoming visitors, one very prevalent, yet controversial method is the use of "clickbait," or links to content that tantalize users into following links to stories with sensational headlines like:
- "You won't believe what happened to…"
- "Take this quiz to see if you are…"
- "The most adorable thing ever…"
One of the keys to these headlines is withholding key information from the headline in order to "bait" the user into trying to find more. While clickbait has become more and more popular recently and seemingly bombards users wherever they go, according to Merriam-Webster, the term has been in existence since 1999.
It's generally acknowledged that clickbait is created to generate advertising revenue by getting visitors to your site, though the actual long-term value of the traffic is questionable for a few reasons. Let's explore why clickbait can backfire.
High traffic, low engagement
While clickbait may get visitors to your site, is new web traffic really all that you're after? For instance, even if someone clicks on one of your clickbait links, will they share it with others, spend more time on your site, or buy a product from you? Probably not. All your effort of crafting a sensational title and creating an accompanying image may drive views, but not much else.
So if you are after anything other than initial views of your page and the associated advertising revenue associated with it, clickbait may not be too valuable to you. In other words, if you measure your website traffic and metrics by engagement (time on site, interaction with content) instead of only by views, this tactic is not going to get you the numbers that you are seeking. It is fairly certain that two negatives will happen in regards to your website performance: your bounce rate will increase and overall engagement will decrease.
Some may combat this trend by using methods to engage users once they follow the initial link. This includes balancing the clickbait content with higher quality content. While this may improve initial engagement from site visitors, as we'll see shortly, this short term gain isn't likely to pay off in the long term for most.
Decrease in brand trust
Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. The old saying goes. Audiences may fall for your clickbait the first time they see one of your catchy headlines, but your brand will ultimately suffer long-term consequences due to lack of trust. How many times do you think that a person will follow links to your website when they are continually disappointed by the content when they follow the clickbait?
Just imagine if you had a friend that kept recommending things to you that would inevitably turn out to be awful, or a waste of time. Whether that's a movie, a restaurant, or a book, there would eventually come a time when you stopped trusting that friend. Now imagine how much easier it would be to grow to distrust a brand that you barely know. It only takes one or two times to lose someone's trust.
Beyond the growth in lack of trust, other consequences of frustration with your brand may also include negative comments on your site and/or social media properties from frustrated users. At this point, lack of trust in your brand starts to spread as visitors, frustrated with having fallen for clickbait, are now sharing this dissatisfaction with their friends and your other followers.
Decrease in social media referrals
Many people use social media as one of their primary methods to get news and see what's going on in the world. Whether it's Facebook, Twitter, or any of the other social networks, the news and content links that make the rounds on these sites can often produce a significant portion of a website's inbound traffic.
However, with all the controversy surrounding "fake news" and other types of clickbait, social networks are cracking down on the amount of these links they are displaying. Last August, Facebook announced it was identifying common words and phrases used in clickbait headlines and penalizing domain names that are consistently posting them.
This means that consistent usage of clickbait that gets shared to social media (whether by your own social media account or by others) is going to be seen and noted by Facebook. This will translate into either limiting the amount of times your links are shown or outright blocking links to your content to other users. That's going to reduce your inbound links from social media significantly, and is certainly not worth the risk.
Decrease in advertising revenue
We've already discussed how clickbait can backfire with a potential decrease in engagement on your site, and with diminished trust in your brand. Unfortunately, it can get even worse.
Finally, the logical conclusion to draw from both decreased engagement and diminishing brand trust will be decreased advertising revenue. Ironically, finding a way to increase ad revenue is the primary reason websites and publishers engage in clickbait in the first place. But eventually, audiences will lose faith in you and your brand, and start to steer clear of links to your site.
This will have the effect of decreasing incoming traffic to your site, thus decreasing advertising impressions. And sure enough, your advertising revenue will fall due to the fall in traffic.
As nice as it may seem to get increased traffic to your website, using clickbait to get more impressions on your content has several drawbacks, and may not pay off in the long term. While you may get some short term gains from a boost in visitors and the ad impressions that come with it, you should be careful how you utilize this tactic as it may not be worth it in the long term.