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Why Is There So Much Clickbait On The Internet?

Clickbait is a pejorative term that describes sensationalized headlines or thumbnails used to get people to click on an article, image or video. Clickbait is often designed to pique an internet user’s curiosity gap, but frequently fails to meet their expectations in content quality. It’s estimated that over one third of mainstream media headlines are clickbait, which begs the question; if clickbait is almost universally disliked, why is there so much of it?

A simple answer is that it works. Surprisingly well. And if one is or aspires to be a content creator, which isn’t as easy as some people think, clickbait can be a mechanism by which to get more clicks and views. Given the extent to which many content creators experience burnout, the initial aversion to using clickbait can wear away at you. You put in hours of effort from scriptwriting to filming to editing, but don’t see a commensurate output in the form of views and engagement. You wonder what else you can do to get the algorithm to favour your content, and after many futile attempts to gain viewership, you resort to clickbait as a last ditch effort. What happens next is shocking!

Thumbnail images of Dhar Mann's YouTube videos.
YouTuber Dhar Mann regularly uses clickbait titles in his videos – “What Happens Next Is Shocking”.

Well, not really. But perhaps your click-through rate and views increase. You’ve seen big channels use it to good effect, boosting their subscriber base despite annoying some people in the process. For some, it’s a price worth paying, particularly after a lengthy period of stagnation.

The effectiveness of clickbait is exemplified by the billions of dollars of revenue generated by programmatic ad platforms such as Taboola and Outbrain. You’ve probably seen them before. This magic pill will change your life! Doctors are shocked! Taboola generates $1.4 billion in annual revenues, closely followed by Outbrain at $900 million. Clickbait ads generated by these platforms and others are so effective that it’s spawned an industry of its own; “Made for Advertising” (MFA) sites.

MFA sites are generally thin on content but full of digital advertising placements. As visitors click on these ads, which many people do given the effectiveness of clickbait, MFA sites earn a lot of money. It’s also estimated that MFA sites are costing advertisers billions of dollars per year with up to 15% of total programmatic ad spend going to MFA sites; a figure that’s ripe for increase given the projected growth of global digital advertising.

A generic clickbait ad with a shocked woman covering her mouth at a casino.
A generic clickbait ad.

Catalysing the prevalence of clickbait is also the inefficiency of clickbait detection systems, which on YouTube rely primarily on metadata and insufficiently on the content of videos. YouTube’s own guidance on impressions and click-through rates (CTR) advises against using clickbait: “Clickbait videos tend to have low average view duration and are therefore less likely to get recommended by YouTube. You can tell if your thumbnail is clickbait if it’s getting high CTR but low average view duration and lower than expected Impressions.” Despite this advice, content creators and viewers repeatedly see clickbait as a means by which to progress. Google has also come under fire for similarly being unable to filter out clickbait on search results and its recommendation systems such as Discover. And this remains an ongoing issue given the mass production of AI-generated content flooding the open web ecosystem.

Ultimately clickbait is here to stay. It’s annoying, unless of course you get RickRolled. Then at least one can appreciate the bait. But its prevalence is a reflection of its effectiveness. Some people, knowing a title or thumbnail is clickbait, will click anyway to satisfy their curiosity gap. There are some signs, however, that clickbait’s prevalence is diminishing the ability of certain content to go viral. And people are becoming more discerning. A sensational headline or thumbnail is automatically ignored by many internet users. But given the sheer size of digital advertising industry and the continued growth of the creator economy, it appears for the time being clickbait is something we just have to live with.

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