If you've a shred of integrity as a writer of any kind, then you will be of the belief that clickbait is pure evil. At best it is irrelevant, at worst; it is misleading and perpetuates idiocy. I'm not here to discuss this sliding scale, so we can just go ahead and put it all in a box marked 'bad' for the purposes of this blog.

Given that the algorithms responsible for a lot of what we see online can be infinitely refined and reiterated, you have to wonder why a technological behemoth such as Facebook has taken this long to move to eliminate clickbait from users' news feeds. 

I suppose it's like they say; "clicks is clicks". 

They might not say that, actually, but you know what I mean - the motivation to stop millions of people interacting on Facebook by 'liking' and commenting on baseless rubbish hasn't really been there. Perhaps now there are some small signs that it is affecting brand advocacy?

They have (sort of) been trying to sort it out; initially by logging the length of time a user spends on an article to determine its usefulness, which governs its prominence. However, this is pretty much lesson 101 when it comes to user experience testing and refinement, so perhaps we should be skeptical about the efforts being made. In the case of detecting clickbait at least, it has been largely ineffective.

However, the problem with clickbait is:

  • Its headlines are designed to be emotive yet vague, encouraging the initial click (um...hence the name)
  • It's designed to withhold information and mislead and often, the reader isn’t fully misled until the last couple of paragraphs – by that time it's too late, you've given the page all the endorsement it needs by interacting with it
  • It has spawned 'brands' which appear to have a modicum of loyalty amongst users (the tiresome 'Give Me Sport', for example – just take one trip to the comments section of any article, I dare you)

Scamming value out of users’ clicks in this way is becoming ever more widespread, and a change has clearly been needed for some time.

Facebook fighting back

Facebook have now further adapted their algorithm to detect withheld or misleading information more accurately in titles, and indeed, machines again know what's best. Facebook Newsroom said on August 4th 2016:

"We are focusing more effort on [clickbait], and are updating News Feed by using a system that identifies phrases that are commonly used in clickbait headlines. First, we categorized tens of thousands of headlines as clickbait by considering two key points: (1) if the headline withholds information required to understand what the content of the article is; and (2) if the headline exaggerates the article to create misleading expectations for the reader." 

Okay so it's not revolutionary, but it shows willing, and Facebook is undoubtedly doing the right thing here.

High time for a digital education

Despite my Facebook vitriol, I'd lay most of the responsibility for the perpetuation of stories about '20 celebrities who died and no one noticed' at the feet of their readers. 

Indeed, a recent Press Gazette survey found that the thirst for immediacy and inevitable competition it brings amongst news agencies "could encourage reporters to sensationalise stories, to trivialise the news and make news out of trivia and to give up on more challenging, public interest journalism that takes time to research and deliver".

It’s obvious that money should be put into peoples' digital educations, and I don’t just mean learning to code – I mean providing them with the critical thinking skills to understand the importance of reliable sources and the tricks of the trade that they may be exposed to. I would argue that the need for this kind of knowledge to be commonplace far preceded the internet.

Taking responsibility as a content creator

So what can you do as a content creator to make sure you don’t fall foul of these changes when you’re posting to Facebook?

  • Write honest headlines: Don’t withhold information that might be vital to the reader’s understanding of what the article will be about. This is the main focus of Facebook’s algorithm change – did ‘what happened next’ actually ‘leave you speechless’? Probably not, and if it did, you can certainly give a better insight into what happened using your headline.
  • Write genuine thought leadership: Maybe my faith in the internet is misplaced, but I believe that one day, we will be in a position where opportunists hustling for clicks will be a thing of the past. It might be a way away, but the more you advocate for genuine thought leadership for your business (that’s not purely sales-driven or taking manipulating people’s curiosity), the better position you will be in and the faster we as marketers can make things change.
  • Be steadfast in your approach, even if you see clickbait being rewarded: Algorithms will continue being refined – this much is certain. These changes may be gradual, and you may be frustrated to see that the rewards for writing clickbait articles are still there to some extent. Stick to your principles, however, as there is one major thing that you have that clickbait doesn’t – actual reader engagement once a user has clicked on your piece. Eventually this will be reflected in the number of pointless articles we see, and during this time you will have been speaking to your audience on their terms and garnering their advocacy.
  • Consider the ads you accept on your website: Okay, so this isn’t one about appearing on people’s newsfeeds, but given that (hopefully) we are on a path to more genuine content online, tarring yourself with the clickbait brush by displaying articles on your website could eventually be a bad idea for long-term reader engagement. 

One step on a long path

Although search engine and newsfeed algorithms are constantly being refined, we still need the motivation to be there for organisations like Facebook to make changes for the benefit of user experience. We can only do this, as users, with our clicks, and as content creators with our honest approach to research and genuine user engagement in the topics being written about.