While “fake news” may be the scourge of the Internet in 2017, it would never have existed had clickbait not paved the path.

A lot of marketers and savvy online readers resent clickbait now, and for good reason—the sensationalistic and vague style of headline writing, made famous by sites like BuzzFeed and Upworthy (“This Man Bought his Daughter an Ice Cream. What Happened Next Will Shock You”), created a style of web writing that enraptured curious readers audiences across the globe.

But just as quickly as it arrived, it began feeling desperate and lame, and subsequently gave way to a more honest, detail-oriented style of headline writing.

In this article, we’ll focus on why the old-school method died out, how following those protocols can do your brand more harm than good, and what lessons we can learn from clickbait to craft effective headlines today.


Clickbait Will Attract the Wrong Visitors


When growing a brand, you need brand loyalty. You need people to find your site and genuinely enjoy it, respect it and come back when they need your product again.

Clickbait, based on vague adjectives and overblown promises, doesn’t do any of that. Its viral potential attracts mostly first-time audiences. As inbound marketing goes, shooting broad can draw all sorts of people, which could be good, but odds are most of them won’t really be interested in your brand—they just want to know what happened when Dad gave his daughter the ice cream.

That’s because clickbait turns reading into a psychological game, forcing audiences to guess what the end result is and stringing them along to reveal the correct answer. Upworthy has long been the winner of this game; they used to be more aggressive with it, but even these days they tease out the story in headlines worded specifically to make you click:



They don’t straight-up say “you’ll never guess what…” in the same way they used to, but the implication is still there: there’s something shocking about American politics that you don’t know, and you can only learn the answer by clicking.


Clickbait Will Make Your Bounce Rate Soar, and Algorithms Hate You


There’s a lot of debate about how much bounce rates really matter—because they’re so easy to manipulate, Google may evaluate a bounce rate far less than many people worry.

But it’s still not a good look to have thousands of people visiting your site for five seconds and leaving, unlikely to return again. Facebook addressed this exact concern in a 2014 blog post on clickbait, also stating they would penalize writers relying on the often disingenuous model.

Clickbait generally doesn’t denote deep, useful content, so visitors tend not to stay for too long. They might get a bad impression from your site, which does you more harm than good in the long run. That’s why Facebook began analyzing time spent on a page as a marker of quality—exactly why authoritative, long posts do well.


You Will Probably Disappoint Your Audience with Clickbait


Rarely does clickbait ever live up to expectations. This correlates directly with the above two reasons clickbait is a bad idea: disappointment leads to bounces, which lead to poor engagement and an inevitable loss of trust in your content.

This is why the game has generally moved away from vague headlines and toward specific headlines that tell people immediately whether the article has the information they need. Take this example from Barnes & Noble:



The headline is still grabby and the piece is still a tried-and-true listicle, but the details are there. You know right off the bat whether this article will appeal to you or not. If you’re a fan of FX’s show Legion, or a fan of graphic novels, or both, the article will be worthwhile; if none of that matters to you, you won’t click.

If they had instead written something generic—“Fans of This Hit TV Show Absolutely Love These Little-Known Books”—lots of readers would have shown up, been hugely disappointed, and left immediately.


Clickbait Will Muddle Your Site’s Important Data


Let’s tackle this subject from an analytics standpoint, too. Let’s say you’re selling ad space on your website to specific clients—various long-term companies are helping you monetize your site.

If you tell them you’re getting 50,000 hits a day, they might be initially impressed. But any ad agency or marketing specialist today would dig deeper:

How long are they staying on your site?

What are their demographics?

Where do they live?

When you rely on ephemeral clickbait, these crucial details get muddled. You’ll have a lousy average time spent on your page, and won’t be able to as easily mine your data for important demographic info that matters to advertisers.

In short, you might get numbers, but those numbers will be useless.


Clickbait Just Feels… Old


What is this, 2011? Internet users are smarter than they were last week, let alone a few years ago. Clickbait was a fad grown from a nascent social media landscape, born of people trying out new ways of communication. It worked for a bit, and now it works less.

If none of the above reasons convinced you, there’s this one simple aesthetic reason: clickbait sounds old and lame. You can glean some lessons about headline-crafting from it, but don’t rely on it.
Be original, creative, clear and useful. What happens next will shock you.