As with tabloid magazines, some write online headlines to draw attention and shock audiences. They may reference alien life, shocking celebrity secrets, or outlandish tales. When your curiosity gets the best of you and you click on the icon, the content often falls short of what you expect. These “clickbait” headlines are manipulative and designed to drive traffic to online sites – often for a completely unrelated reason.

You will find clickbait on major news sites and any websites that sell advertising space or engage in native advertising. Some clickbait is worthwhile, generating views while leaving the audience with visible entertainment or informational value. Other clickbait is more insidious, stretching the truth to the limits for the purpose of fueling the advertising industry or selling a product.


Why Clickbait is so Frustrating

Clickbait headlines are frustrating because they are cons. They use deception to manipulate readers into engaging in a specific activity (clicking, sharing, or purchasing a product). Clickbait uses images and headlines that are so compelling readers feel drawn to click. Unfortunately, the content often fails to live up to the headline. Clickbait tactics include:

  • Creating a title that over-exaggerates the content “The Best Way to …”
  • Using a title that is a misnomer, e.g., titling content about how to wash your hair properly as “You’ll Never Believe what the Kardashians Use for Healthy Hair”
  • Using a compelling title to sell a product, e.g., using a title like, “Wait and See What This Man Does When He Proposes …” to sell a wedding photography package.

The founder of Yahoo Tech, David Pogue, started an online series called, “Pogue’s Clickbait Spoilers” to call out clickbait abusers. You can read one of his installments on In each example, Pogue cites the headline with a working link and then delivers a spoiler alert about how the content failed to live up to the hype of the headline.

During the beginning of the presidential race, GOP candidate Bobby Jindal started using clickbait style tactics to generate more buzz as his campaign started to fizzle. He knew that talking about Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump, and making pop culture references would keep him in media headlines. The tactic worked, but not for long. Jindal suspended his campaign in November 2015.


Is Clickbait the Best Way to Make Money Online?

Everyone online creates content for a purpose. Even the most well-intentioned free-advice bloggers and experts need to capture your attention to achieve their goals, i.e., spreading a message, making money, or selling a product. Clickbait is a no-brainer way to get views, which is why even large news outlets such as Fox News, CNN, and USA Today use the tactic themselves or allow third-party content that uses it. Pay-per-click advertising setups incentivize clickbait, making it a difficult practice to avoid in some cases.

While clickbait can make a site owner extra cash, it’s generally a shortsighted moneymaking technique. If the content does not match the headline or deliver value, new traffic tends to be the only measurable gains publishers can claim. Once a reader clicks on the content and finds it unappealing, he or she will leave. Without solid content delivery, publishers can’t earn shares, likes, or positive reader comments.

Some major media corporations recognize the problem that nefarious clickbait campaigns pose and are curbing their use on widely used platforms. For instance, Facebook designed its newsfeed ranking techniques to weed out irrelevant or sensational content based on user preferences. The rise of ad blockers also helped somewhat. Ad blockers, such as Ad Blocker for Chrome, remove advertising content in a fully configurable way.

For fun: The popular satire site, the Onion even created a parody site for clickbait content called “Clickhole.” While the site does not actively eliminate clickbait campaigns, it does make light of its prevalence across the web.

Create Value by Underselling and Over-Delivering

Clickbait might get your brand noticed online, but the practice does not make sense if you want to earn loyal followers, build credibility and strengthen your brand reputation. Instead of overselling and under-delivering, focus on accurately selling or underselling in the headline and over-delivering the content. Consider these tips for creating an engaging but accurate headline to strengthen every content campaign:

  • Vet third-party content before publishing. If you allow other companies or authors to post content on your branded site, create a list of anti-clickbait rules. Your audience will associate advertisers and third-party content with your brand. Make sure it accurately reflects your brand’s ideals.
  • Know your content. Before you write a headline to generate traffic, understand the content message. If the headline does not match up with the meat of the message, it is clickbait.
  • Avoid embellishment. Do you really have the only answer to weight loss that people need to know? Is your content really the best way to get eight hours of sleep per night? Choose your adjectives carefully, considering the connotation as well as the denotation.
  • Use images to back up your headline. Use graphics, infographics, logos, and other fitting visual content to encourage readers to notice your headline.
  • Heavily avoid clickbait for serious topics. If you write serious informational content, avoid clickbait headlines at all costs. Your audience may not buy into your expertise if you sensationalize legal, medical, or financial headlines.
  • Anti-clickbait does not equal While you want to avoid clickbait, that doesn’t mean that you need to give up all compelling language. Spend extra time finding a fitting title that matches your content and illustrates the value that your reader will earn from clicking on the prompt.

The Ethical Dilemma: Drawing a Line in the Sand

When you match exceptional headlines with mediocre content, your personal or professional brand runs the risk of losing credibility and trust. Few, if any, readers enjoy finding clickbait, but publishers continue to crank out deceptive headlines on a daily basis. Using clickbait in headlines presents an ethical dilemma that everyone who produces content needs to consider. Is online content a reader-beware landscape, or should value-driven brands police the content they display more carefully?