The many different ways publishers define ‘clickbait’

Clickbait for publishers is a bit like some people’s definitions of pornography: It’s hard to define, but people know it when they see it. Put another way, if you ask 10 people what clickbait means, chances are you’re going to get 10 different answers.

The infinitely squishy nature of the word was laid bare last week when BuzzFeed News editor-in-chief Ben Smith penned an article about why BuzzFeed doesn’t do clickbait. Smith’s contention was simple. While many publishers use clickbait to trick their readers into clicking, BuzzFeed takes a more simple and arguably more effective route: Allow readers to expect straightforward headlines, and then consistently provide stories that match the headlines.

“If your goal — as is ours at BuzzFeed — is to deliver the reader something so new, funny, revelatory, or delightful that they feel compelled to share it, you have to do work that delivers on the headline’s promise, and more,” Smith wrote.

Of course, a look at BuzzFeed’s homepage shows that the site itself is guilty of the same practices that Smith decries, a reality that many Twitter observers were all-too-eager to point out.

Still, Smith’s post shows the uphill struggle BuzzFeed faces as it tries to expand its editorial footprint behind the sort of fluffy content it has built its business around. Readers still for the most part think of BuzzFeed as a home to addictive, shareable headlines, not serious journalism.

Likewise, Smith’s post and its ensuing debate also revealed something else: No one can quite agree on what clickbait really means. Here are a few definitions from around the industry.

Alex Mizrahi, creator, @HuffPoSpoilers
Clickbait is saying “this town” or “this state” or “this celebrity” instead of saying Los Angeles or Colorado or Justin Timberlake. It’s over-promising and under-delivering. It’s leaving out the one crucial piece of information the reader may want to know. It’s an anti-headline, reinverting the inverted pyramid.

A lot of people are so annoyed by the egregious clickbaiters out there that they now consider any mystery to be unacceptable. This, of course, is silly. You can’t fit all the facts into 117 characters; if you tried, you’d be incredibly boring. What differentiates @nytimes, say, from @huffingtonpost is that they make their tweets informative and entertaining. They don’t sacrifice quality for clicks.

So clickbait is not necessarily the absence of information; it’s the absence of information when there’s absolutely no reason for that absence to exist.

Gabe Rivera, founder, Techmeme
If various factions are defining clickbait differently, then I think we should just settle on different terminology to facilitate useful debate. Personally, I’m fine with Ben Smith’s definition, but we should also recognize he’s punting on the issue of whether reliance on a profusion of what many see as not-so-edifying content is a good foundation for his company.

At Techmeme, we’ve found even older and more established publications often attach vague and nebulous headlines to otherwise edifying, relevant and informative news articles. In our view, this too is a form a baitiness, because it requires readers to click-through just to collect basic facts a headline could have conveyed. This is why we started writing our own headlines to solve the problem for our readers.

Anthony De Rosa, editor-in-chief, Circa
[Ben Smith] can define, and I can define, clickbait however we want, but what matters is how the vast majority of their audience, and the public at large, perceives it. My definition of clickbait would be: low-quality, formulaic content with little redeeming value that is intended to drive up pageviews.

Matt Buchanan, John Herrman and Choire Sicha, The Awl
Why does everyone have a different definition of clickbait? They don’t! The definition is and always has been: Clickbait is the thing we are not doing. Clickbait is the thing other people are doing. (This is sad, in that every publication needs people to click on [or pay for!] it on a regular basis, or it will cease to exist—except for, like, Harper’s.)

In the end, clickbait is an insult in the same way that “Social Justice Warrior” or “hipster” is an insult. They are also similar in that they are deployment schemes that utilize the engager. Readers characterize things they don’t like as clickbait; publishers characterize things they don’t do as clickbait. Both definitions attribute sinister motivations to straw sites — they’re just useful pejorative shorthand. Clickbait lies in the eye of the jaded non-clicker.

Brandon Gorrell, co-publisher, Thought Catalog
I prefer how Facebook conceives the term: Clickbait is “when a publisher posts a link with a headline that encourages people to click to see more, without telling them much information about what they will see.” But I also agree with a Twitter user who recently said everything is clickbait — in that, as publishers online, “it is our job to get people to click on things.”

I think we have different definitions of clickbait because we value different things. The term is almost always used to describe bad stuff, but people have different preferences. A listicle, for example, might not be interesting or insightful to a NYC-based 30-year-old with a liberal arts degree, but it could be truly insightful for millions of younger people across the country. A click that represents a temptation to one person might be meaningful and valuable reading to another person.

Julia Turner, editor-in-chief, Slate
Clickbait is the pejorative and suggests a headline making a promise that the story it links to doesn’t keep. The headline baits you into clicking, and then you’re just a fish on a hook, dragged through a sea of display ads without the satisfaction of a good meal. Clickbait begets disappointed readers, and that’s never a good thing; we strive mightily to avoid it on Slate.

However, most Web writers and editors do have thoughts on which topics are “clicky” — which is the non-pejorative term I usually hear for a subject that readers will be interested in and thus might click on. There’s no shame in thinking about what’s “clicky”: It’s basically another word for “interesting” or “enticing,” factors editors have been considering for time immemorial.

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