Not Everything You Think is ‘Clickbait’ Actually Is


People who work in social media constantly hear the term ‘clickbait.’ Unfortunately, those who make the accusation don’t always know what it really means.

If you run a website and you use Facebook to promote stories you post — whether you’re a mainstream news site, a tutorial site or even a blogger — you’re hoping people will click a link to your actual website.


The answer, for the most part, is simple: your website is where you make revenue. It’s where the advertisers who pay to advertise on your site are waiting for page views. It’s where you are (hopefully) monitoring your analytics so you can work to get your page views and unique visitors up.

You can see on your Facebook page a post’s “reach,” based on the number of people who have supposedly been exposed to your post, a number that sometimes seems quite unlikely. But for the most part, when you make a normal post to your Facebook page, you don’t make revenue when someone sees the post. If you’re going to make revenue at all, chance are it’ll only happen when they actually click the link and go to your site.

  • Writing a post that gives someone a valid reason to visit your website isn’t clickbait.
  • Writing a post that fairly explains what a link is about and what it will provide a reader isn’t clickbait.
  • Writing a post that entices people to click through for information you’ve promised that’s actually there isn’t clickbait.

But posting something that inaccurately characterizes what’s waiting behind the click, something that unfairly promises something you can’t deliver, or something that’s so blatantly false that it can only result in aggravation from the person who ends up feeling gypped is clickbait.

Celebrities are a favorite target for clickbait schemes.

Just the other day, for example, I saw a classic example of this false posting in action.

At the end of an article I was reading, there was a third-party plug-in for “related posts” and one of them featured a photo of Kirstie Alley. It wasn’t a particularly flattering photo of the actress, but there was no doubt of who it was.

The headline beneath the photo read, “27 Celebs Who Passed Away and Not a Word Was Said.”

For that post not to be clickbait, there’d have to be at least two things that were proven in the post: first, the actress would actually have to have died; and second, they would have to demonstrate that this well-known person’s passing was not mentioned by any of the major outlets.

Only the second condition could possibly have been true: Alley’s “passing” has not been mentioned by the major outlets.

But there’s a good reason for that: she’s still alive. If you’re aware that she’s still alive, you know not to fall for this kind of trick. If you don’t know that she’s still alive, you’ll click the link, and you’ll likely find yourself facing a slideshow of 40 or more frames, often of the same photo repeated two or three times in a row with a new fact in each subsequent caption.

But in a post like the one I described, you won’t find a photo of Kirstie Alley.

That’s why it’s clickbait.

Here’s a ‘gross’ example of clickbait for you.

A newspaper I followed on Facebook posted a link a story with the following headline:

Millions of pounds of chicken tenders, sausage, pasta recalled after gross discovery

Hmm. In this day and age, a “gross discovery” could be anything from, forgive me, ground-up rodents to bodily fluids. No matter what the discovery happens to be, it’s likely going to be unpleasant.

Accompanying the headline, above the photo, was this text: “Eating these products could have deadly consequences, so please pass this along.”

So you click the link. The headline on the actual story now says this:

Millions of pounds of chicken tenders, sausage, pasta recalled after an alarming discovery

It’s important to note there could be valid reasons a headline on Facebook would be different from the headline in an actual article. If the article gets updated after the Facebook post is done, the headline on the Facebook post does not automatically update itself. Sometimes headlines are adjusted because they’re too long to display well on Facebook. Sometimes, there may be a reason to make a change a headline slightly to encourage a broader Facebook audience to click a link that might otherwise appeal to a more narrow newspaper audience.

Again, as long as what is posted is fair based on the contents of the actual link, it’s not clickbait.

So what’s this “gross” and “alarming” discovery? The article’s lede explains a mistake by an ingredient supplier prompted nine USDA “high-health risk” recalls and that some of the recalled food had actually been sent to schools.

It gets more and more frightening.

Then there’s this line:

All because of bread crumbs.

Bread crumbs? So that must be the component in which some sordid “extra ingredient” must have been found. Maybe a disgruntled worker decided to pee into the vat of crumbs. Maybe a pesticide was accidentally found inside.

It turns out, when you read a bit further in, that the “gross” and “alarming” ingredient happens to be milk. Not sour milk, mind you, just milk.

The issue is that while the products being recalled obviously contain milk, since one of their ingredients is made with milk, the product ingredient lists do not declare dairy products, a problem that could lead to a serious, perhaps even deadly, reaction to people with severe dairy allergies.

The threat to certain customers — the threat that prompted the recall — was legitimate.

But the way the story was presented on social media mischaracterized the nature of the issue. While some people may not be fans of milk, it’s not generally regarded as “gross.” 

Undeclared milk may legitimately be considered an “alarming discovery.” But it also might feel like a sensationalized headline to readers who aren’t affected by dairy allergies.

That hurts the credibility of the source that shares it…especially because of the “gross” alternate headline.

I think most readers — if they take the time to think about it — understand that any Facebook page needs to get people to the page owner’s actual website. Most readers probably don’t take that time to think that through, but when they do, I think they’d likely agree that this is the strategy Facebook pages are pretty much forced to use.

But posts that promise one thing but deliver something else cross a very different and very dangerous line. People have unfollowed sources for such offenses.

Page owners would do well to consider not only whether their posts will get clicks, but also how angry their readers will be if their posts do not accurately depict what is promised before that click.

the authorPatrick
Patrick is a Christian with more than 30 years experience in professional writing, producing and marketing. His professional background also includes social media, reporting for broadcast television and the web, directing, videography and photography. He enjoys getting to know people over coffee and spending time with his dog.