Forget clickbait: write headlines with real lure

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We’ve all seen those enticing clickbait headlines on sites like BuzzFeed and Upworthy. They come in three main flavours:

  1. Things 25-year-old British brunettes with a dog called Bob know to be true

Those that fall into the category outlined are seduced by the promise of relatable content; those that don’t feel left out and want to know what’s so special about the group. The overly specific headline looks niche, but manages to draw pretty much everyone in.

  1. A cat met a paraglider: you won’t believe what happens next

The weird thing about cliffhanger headlines? They’re often extraordinarily underwhelming. But they’re so hard to resist…especially when cats are involved.

  1. 46.3 facts about Harry Potter any decent human being should know

Just like the shopkeeper who reduces pies to 57p to make you think he’s really taking his discounts to the limit, the click fisher loves unusual numbers that suggest every point has been carefully selected. And they somehow manage to convince you that movie trivia is life-or-death information.

Clickbait does exactly what it says on the tin: most of us are hard-pressed to scroll past these kinds of headlines. However, will there come a point that the fish won’t bite?

The clickbait backlash

Satirical news site The Onion recently launched ClickHole, which takes a poke at clickbait and the generally underwhelming content that accompanies it. It encapsulates a growing disdain towards these tactics, which often leave users feeling deceived, disappointed or even manipulated.

Hyperbole leads to an anti-climax, so clickbait sets itself up for a fall. Of course you want visitors to follow your links and read your articles, but you don’t want them to leave feeling annoyed or let down. That’s the recipe for a high bounce rate, low loyalty and bad PR.

If you want users and Google to respect your content, your headlines should be justifiable clickbait. In other words, they should attract clicks — but without the gimmicks. They don’t attempt to trick users into reading something they wouldn’t otherwise be interested in.

What SEO teaches us about headline-writing

SEO seeks to connect searchers with brands they’re potentially interested in; it doesn’t simply aim to increase website traffic. In much the same way, headlines are not there to spawn clicks. They’re there to generate clicks that link the right people to the right content.

Thinking about SEO also reminds us that we cannot take inspiration from newspaper headlines when writing for the web. Word play catches the eye and captures the imagination on newsstands, but fades into obscurity when keywords come into play.

Writing headlines online

Headlines that yield SEO benefits and happy readers simply summarise the content concisely, clearly and cleverly. They draw the reader in because they reliably represent the high-quality, relevant content featured — not because of psychological trickery.

Feeling the need to mislead or sensationalise suggests you’re concerned about the quality of your content. This is not the way to make readers feel confident and trusting.

Could I have increased page views for this blog post by entitling it ‘Can you avoid clicking on this headline?’. Possibly. Would some people have taken the bait and been dissatisfied with the result? Probably. Is it worth boosting click-through rates at the expense of brand image? Doubtful.

You knew what type of discussion to expect when you clicked on my headline, but it didn’t give everything away. When your business produces informative and interesting content, don’t undermine it with an inane or boring headline.


Do you have the willpower to avoid attention-grabbing clickbait, or are you always lured by mysterious headlines? Join the conversation in the comments below.


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