The term clickbaiting, sometimes also referred to as “clickbait” in German, describes a technique of advertising content on the Internet with headlines or images that usually arouse exaggerated expectations in the user. In general, this practice is viewed very critically. However, the boundaries to the normal teasing of topics are fluid – this method has been common in media of all kinds for decades and is often considered necessary, especially for online publications, to attract enough users.

If you want to publish articles, pictures or videos in today’s media landscape, you inevitably have to try to attract attention. Especially on the Internet, the range of content on practically any topic is so immense that individual contributions can quickly get lost. So the temptation is naturally great to emphasize the most sensational parts in the headline or in a preview image in order to generate more clicks – and thus in many cases more advertising revenue.

In principle, this kind of thing is not reprehensible and has been common practice in traditional media such as newspapers, magazines and television for years and decades. It only becomes problematic when the promised content and the actual content do not match. In this case, it is usually referred to as clickbaiting.

However, there is no clear definition of clickbaiting and opinions differ among experts as to what is still considered a justifiable preview of content and what is clickbaiting. In many cases, clickbaiting is described as a promise that has no equivalent in the content behind the link. The promised information must therefore be completely missing according to this information. A particularly strict interpretation, on the other hand, sees it as clickbaiting – and thus as deceiving the reader – if the promised content is not present in exactly this form.

However, these different interpretations show how difficult it is to precisely define the term. This is not least due to the fact that the personal perception of the user plays a role in the evaluation. If a link with the title “The best tips for car insurance” only contains some general information about car insurance, the reader might already feel deceived. However, if the reader has no prior knowledge of car insurance, the article may still be of interest to him.

How does clickbaiting work?

Like many other advertising measures on the Internet, clickbaiting relies primarily on people’s natural curiosity. The headline of a text or the thumbnail of a video arouses the user’s interest without telling him too much about the topic. Vague statements such as “But see for yourself what happened next” or “You’ll be surprised” are particularly effective in this context. This creates a so-called “curiosity gap” in the user, because his curiosity is aroused, but he does not receive enough information to satisfy this curiosity. He is thus virtually “seduced” by the bait to click on the link. This works particularly well with topics that are emotionally charged or arouse emotions, for example animals, small children, natural disasters and accidents. In principle, however, any topic can be used for clickbaiting, including serious issues such as discrimination, migration or government surveillance.

However, it is important to note that not every headline that creates a curiosity gap is automatically clickbait. As mentioned at the beginning, this method is common practice in many areas of the media landscape. The whole thing only becomes clickbait when the curiosity gap is not or only insufficiently closed by the text.

How effective is clickbaiting?

This question can best be divided into two parts, because on the one hand it is about whether or how many people can be persuaded to click on a link through clickbaiting. The other is whether the website also benefits from attracting users through clickbaiting.

The first part of the question can be answered with a relatively clear yes. Dramatic or otherwise sensational events arouse people’s curiosity; this is a fact that is repeatedly expressed, among other things, in kilometer-long traffic jams caused by rubberneckers on the highway. Of course, not everyone is automatically seduced by clickbait, but a large proportion of users often find it difficult to resist this seduction. So clickbaiting in itself works.

The question of the advantage for the clickbait provider is much more difficult to answer. One problem that clickbaiting practically always brings with it is an enormously high bounce rate and a very low dwell time. This is not surprising, because if the user feels deceived, he will usually leave the page very quickly – and unnerved. Of course, the site operators know this too and plan accordingly. So they reckon that only every thousandth or ten thousandth visitor will actually click on a banner on the page and thus bring them sales. So financially, clickbaiting can also be worthwhile, as long as it is done correctly.

The biggest problem with clickbaiting is probably the loss of credibility. Anyone who regularly promotes content that they then fail to deliver will eventually no longer be taken seriously by users. Of course, there are sites where this is also factored in. However, for a website operator who has a serious interest in publishing content, lack of credibility is a massive problem. In such a case, clickbaiting would bring more harm than good – at least in the long run.

Clickbaiting in social networks

Since no journalistic standards apply in social networks like Facebook, clickbaiting is particularly widespread there. Thanks to the often emotionally charged topics, it is also very easy to succeed with clickbait on social networks, especially since this practice is often perceived as less offensive here.

Nonetheless, resistance to clickbaiting is also repeatedly voiced on Facebook, and in 2016 the company even announced that it wanted to take action against clickbaiting itself. Facebook wants to develop an algorithm that is able to recognize typical clickbaiting headlines and identify the associated pages. How serious these efforts will be and whether Facebook will be successful with them remains to be seen.

Clickbaiting is a practice that has a certain effect – but this effect is not desirable for most pages on the Internet, or only to a very limited extent. In addition, clickbaiting has a very bad reputation and is generally only seen as negative, so it is only worthwhile for very few website operators to rely on clickbaiting.

However, not every headline that leaves parts of the message to the user’s imagination is automatically clickbaiting. Website operators should always keep this difference in mind, because it is absolutely legitimate to lure readers to one’s own site by using exciting and sensational headlines. The crucial thing, however, is that the promised information is delivered.


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