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What Is Clickbait? A Guide to Avoiding Clickbait Headlines

By: Compose.ly — December 17, 2021

There’s no doubt that the market for internet traffic is competitive. There are so many sites that it can feel like a constant battle to keep readers coming to your site. Because of this atmosphere, many copywriters have taken the easy way out, using clickbait titles to pull in readers. This can be effective over the short term, but it’s the wrong choice for most brands and writers.

Clickbait content won’t help sites that want to build lasting audiences. Clickbait titles can actually harm your site. Here’s what you need to know about the clickbait trend and why it’s terrible for your brand, clickbait examples, and how to write titles that mean something.

woman sitting at desk in front of computer

What Is Clickbait?

What does clickbait mean? If you’ve ever seen an article titled something like “11 Unbelievable Facts — The Fourth One Will Shock You!” then you’ve seen clickbait. Today, it’s often associated with fake news. If you want a simple clickbait definition, it’s a title that aims to attract attention and clicks by inciting an emotional reaction, rather than focusing on the facts.

A clickbait title tries to pull people into an article by seeming unbelievable or shocking. These titles are rarely informative, and the content behind the clickbait doesn’t have to be interesting. The quality of the article has no bearing on the attention the title gets. That’s why clickbait has such a reputation for poor quality.

There’s a specific kind of page title that’s considered “clickbait.” A clickbait title is usually:

Misleading or unclear

The most fundamental element of a clickbait title is that it misleads the reader about what’s behind the link. It may ask questions like “Could Your Home Be At Risk of Dangerous Explosions?” when the answer is almost certainly no.

It may also just lie about the piece of content, with a misleading headline like “Doctors Discover New Treatment for Hiccups” that either describes a well-known treatment or a fake treatment invented by people who aren’t doctors.

Inflammatory

A significant element of many clickbait articles is the use of provocative language. This can be positive, such as “incredible,” “groundbreaking,” or “unbelievable,” or negative, such as “terrible,” “worst,” or “deadly.” If a title uses strong, emotionally charged words to get clicks, be wary of it being inflammatory clickbait.

Pushy

Clickbait titles often use phrases like “You MUST Read!” or “Don’t Miss Out!” to force a fear of missing out (FOMO) on readers, regardless of whether the information is important or time-bound.

In combination, these three elements obscure the page’s actual content, make it seem more exciting or important than it is, and try to make the reader think they’ll miss out if they don’t click through.

Why Is Clickbait Bad for Your Site?

There are two big reasons why clickbait titles are a bad idea. It hurts your site’s SEO and your brand’s reputation.

On the technical side, Google tracks details like how well your titles align with the contents of an article and bounce rate. Clickbait titles rarely include important features Google looks for, like target keywords, and may actively mislead readers. This is a perfect recipe for losing points in Google’s site-ranking system, keeping any pages on your website out of the top of search rankings.

On a more personal level, clickbait will break your audience’s trust. After years of clickbait being spread around the internet, most users associate it with poor-quality writing, so they avoid it. And, even if your readers do click on your article, a misleading title will show them that you don’t respect their time, pushing them away to quickly leave your website, which increases your bounce rate.

The best solution is to write valuable content and with engaging headlines that are still honest. It’s a healthier business model for your SEO and your reputation.

Five of the Worst Clickbait Examples Online

There are plenty of examples of clickbait-type headlines online, some of which are popular on social media platforms because of how sensational they are. The following examples demonstrate what clickbait can look like. They’re good to use as case studies for what to avoid in your titles.

Taboola: “Gut Doctor ‘I Beg Americans To Throw Out This Vegetable'”

Taboola Clickbait Headline

This is one of the most infamous examples of clickbait on the internet. It’s so well known that a Vox article broke down why it appeared everywhere for so long. The title and controversy around it is a perfect example of how clickbait can be misleading.

When people clicked open this article, they weren’t brought to an explanation of dangerous vegetables. Instead, the link would take them to a website called United Naturals that sold diet powders for $45 per package. The title had nothing to do with the actual page, making it a blatant lie and the worst kind of clickbait.

Biggest Clickbait Sin: Misleading and vague

Takeaway: Don’t lie to the audience

Ever Tricks: “When You See These, You Already Have Cancer”

Ever Tricks Clickbait Headline

This is a common sensationalized headline you’d see on popular websites, this clickbait example preys on the reader’s fear of dangerous health problems. It implies that the reader may already have cancer, triggering people to click to find out.

However, it doesn’t lead to an article with anything to do with cancer. These ads led to various health and wellness website homepages, with no specific articles to answer the user’s question.

Biggest Clickbait Sin: Scary and misleading

Takeaway: Don’t scare your audience unnecessarily

Tiffany Largie: “This Is Why You’re Losing Money”

The other major problem with clickbait titles is their tendency to be vague. This Tiffany Largie article is an excellent example of how these titles can be purposefully non-specific to drive clicks.

The title doesn’t give any context for what might be losing the reader money or how to solve the problem. It relies entirely on the fear of loss to get people to read without offering any substance. The page does contain helpful content, so this title isn’t necessary to bring in an audience.

Biggest Clickbait Sin: Scary and vague

Takeaway: Give more details

Forbes: “9 Big Trends For 2014 (You Won’t Believe What’s #9)”

This Forbes article is an example of how even well-respected sites once fell victim to clickbait. The phrase “You Won’t Believe #X” is notorious for heralding clickbait. The intent is to pique the reader’s curiosity, but today it just seems dated.

Plus, the article title doesn’t explain what kind of trends it covers. That’s critical information. Leaving it out is another way to trigger reader curiosity instead of providing value.

Biggest Clickbait Sin: Vague curiosity bait

Takeaway: Avoid “You Won’t Believe” constructions and give readers context instead of banking on curiosity

Travel and Leisure: “5 Stunning Places You’ve Probably Never Heard of but Need to See, According to a Woman Who’s Traveled to 100 Countries (Video)”

This is a slightly different example of clickbait. The title of this Travel and Leisure article is certainly honest, but it’s also overwhelming. The writer leaves nothing out. It could be an attempt to improve SEO by including more keywords, but it also comes across as pushy.

A better title for the article and video would be shorter, like “The 5 Stunning Places You Need to See, According to a World Traveler.” It’s still honest, but it doesn’t seem desperate for clicks.

Biggest Clickbait Sin: Length

Takeaway: Keep titles short

How to Avoid Clickbait Headlines While Still Getting Clicks

So, what’s the solution if clickbait isn’t the way to title your articles? There are several rules you can follow to write titles that win traffic without it. These guidelines will help you write exciting titles that communicate with your audience.

Publish Worthwhile Content

The best way to avoid the need for clickbait titles is to write genuinely exciting content. When an article is written well and covers an interesting topic, there’s no need to trick readers into clicking through. You can title the piece honestly, and it will still interest readers.

There’s no single recipe for worthwhile content, of course. To write content that your audience cares about, you’ll need to research your niche.

You may also have to slightly decrease your posting schedule, especially if you’ve been posting daily. High-quality copy will keep bringing in readers over time, while clickbait has a short shelf life. Clickbaity, sensational headlines may initially have high click-through rates, but once the readers catch on, they no longer trust the site.

Put Yourself in Your Audience’s Shoes

Take a step back from your titles and put yourself in your audience’s place. What kinds of titles appeal to you? If you were looking for the solution that your brand offers, what type of content would you care about? Use your answers to those questions to write titles that appeal.

Remember that you’re writing for a specific audience. When you put yourself in their shoes, you can write titles that they care about. Study the topics that have gotten good responses in the past, the subjects your competitors write about, and the issues facing your target audience. You can use this information to build customer personas that will help you choose future blog post topics and titles.

Make Your Headlines Clear

The clickbait examples above often run into problems with vagueness. For instance, “This Is Why You’re Losing Money” doesn’t have the necessary context or details to tell readers what to expect from the post. It relies fully on the curiosity gap to bring in readers. With titles like this, you may get more readers, but most will click away as soon as they realize the article isn’t relevant to them.

Instead, be specific. “Why Charging By the Hour Loses You Money” is more informative while still pulling in the reader. It also helps readers who don’t care about the page’s topic to continue scrolling and find content on the site that interests them instead. This shows you respect your readers’ time and actively want to help them instead of simply getting clicks.

Avoid Unnecessary Suspense

Titles designed as questions or relying on the word “this” try to pull in readers through suspense. The problem with these titles is that they don’t keep the reader engaged. As soon as they get the answer to their question, they’re satisfied and will likely click away. Furthermore, readers will likely get annoyed and lose respect for your brand if the answer doesn’t live up to the title’s hype.

Again, clarity makes all the difference. Instead of using titles like “When You See These, You Already Have Cancer” or “Gut Doctor ‘I Beg Americans To Throw Out This Vegetable,'” give more details. “When You See New Moles, You May Have Cancer” and “Gastroenterologist Recommends Americans Avoid Spinach” are both less suspenseful and more informative. They give the reader an accurate idea of the article contents without false suspense.

Consider Exceptions to the Rule

National Geographic Darwin Article

There’s an exception to every rule, and clickbait is no different. You can use clickbait titles to great effect if you use them sparingly. The National Geographic Magazine did just that with its famous “Was Darwin Wrong About Evolution?” cover in November of 2004.

The issue was released just as clickbait was starting its rise to internet notoriety. The title implies Darwin may have been wrong about evolution, but the article inside clearly says he was right, in a classic clickbait bait-and-switch.

However, the magazine used the title for good reasons. The purpose of the title was to pull in readers who trusted the brand and hopefully inform more readers about the evidence for evolution. If you have built trust with your readers, a clickbait-style title once in a blue moon can help those articles pop.

Start Writing Better Titles Today

There’s no need to rely on clickbait anymore. If you’re trying to build a respected brand, clickbait actively makes it harder. Take advantage of a more effective content marketing technique. Utilize SEO and develop a strong content strategy, you’ll quickly see how much more effective it is than clickbait.

You can build better titles by writing or commissioning quality content, writing for your audience, and being transparent and honest. Not only will this make it easier to write accurate headlines instead of clickbait, but you’ll also show your respect for your audience.

The result will be higher-quality traffic, a loyal readership, and better SEO. Avoiding clickbait is simply better for your brand in every way.


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