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It’s 2019. Why in the World Does Clickbait Still Work?

We all know the trick, we’ve seen it a million times, most of us are very aware of fake news, and yet clickbait remains.

Worse yet, even while being fully aware of the entire charade, it still somehow manages to rope us in and works on even the shrewdest of consumers.

I mean, sure, that amazing 5-minute shortcut method to get a Greek-statue 6 pack while aggravating trainers sounds like total BS, and yet a question lingers… “What if this time it’s the real deal?” So we check it out, even if for just a few seconds.

If the content is truly good, then we’re caught, and if it’s not up to par, then we leave feeling slightly ashamed until the next one catches our attention.

We talked about the history of clickbait, the pros and cons, and even how to write good titles with the power of clickbait while not losing integrity. But today we’ll tackle the most simple question: why the heck does clickbait still work in 2019?!

Regardless of whether you enjoy clickbait or absolutely hate it. It’s still a widespread phenomenon, so knowing how and why it works will help you better understand marketing – even your own choices as a reluctant consumer in clickbait-driven market.

The clickbait enters your mind in 3 steps:

Step 1 – It exists

We talk a lot about various analogies here in our blog, and in our previous articles, we’ve said several times that a title is the “foot in the door” to a potential sale. But this “foot in the door” happens way sooner than you might think. It’s not even the title itself or what it says.

It starts with the general form of the sentence before even comprehending the words. Meaning, the moment you notice a title, clickbait or not, your mind is already engaged on some level and is compelled to read it. Add to that the various techniques the clickbait employs, and the rest might be a breeze.

Step 2 – Building Anticipation

This is the main part. Now you’re engaged, at least on an automatic level of “I see this sentence, so  I might as well read it.” And as soon as you read it, you build some kind of anticipation. A very enticing title will bank on that anticipation. It’ll give you a teaser, and you’ll click the title because you want to see what the rest is all about.

Anticipation is built by employing various tried and tested methods that are part of our preexisting psychological infrastructure.

So, let’s say one of our ancestors walks in the woods foraging for food, and this strange mushroom with weird colors is popping out from the forest floor. It can either grant wisdom, be nutritious, or be poisonous, but in any case, it stands out in a strange and appealing way. It would pique their curiosity and present a gap in their understanding, which is why our ancestors would try one to see what it would do.

The discovery and exploration feature of our consciousness has helped us survive and evolve as a species, but now it’s exploited to sell us self-improvement methods and magic supplements that “they” don’t want you to know about.

So, this anticipation building stands on two main pillars – tugging our emotions and invoking curiosity.

For instance, this research study, which analyzed 69,907 article titles for their emotional impact, discovered that titles designed to evoke positive or negative emotional extremes had much more engagement than titles that were more neutral, “clean” and informative in tone.

Your brain is just conditioned to want stimulation, and the road to stimulation goes through emotions.

There’s a reason why a pile of stats shows that quality of life is rising and our world is becoming a safer place, and yet news outlets will still make their best efforts to inflate negativity and fear: because it sells.

A popular explanation of why titles play on our curiosity is called the Information-Gap Theory by economists George Loewenstein and Russell Golman. They propose that titles which tease readers with new information not already known creates uncertainty and a sense of deprivation. These uncomfortable feelings need to be resolved, and readers need to acquire that missing piece of information.

This “gap of uncertainty” will only be resolved by clicking and seeing the content.

Look at that squid one in the middle, I bet doctors absolutely HATE that one.

In a way, the dirtiest clickbait is like that shady guy in the alley that goes, “Psst.. hey kid, I’ve got something interesting to show you.” The clickbait is telling you, “I know some information you don’t. But you gotta click this dark alley to find out, otherwise you’ll continue walking, never to know what this life-changing information was.”

Information gaps created by certain titles need to be traversed in order for the reader to feel fulfilled and make them feel whole again. The content promised might not even remotely interest them, but if the “curiosity itch” created is strong enough, they will be compelled to scratch it.

We’ve got a complicated relationship with uncertainty and not knowing. Religion basically thrived on the principle of giving answers, even if the answers were arbitrary (whether they were believed or not doesn’t even matter). Science is just another form of the search for answers to the immortal questions “why”, and of course, “what in the world is this, I don’t even-“.

Heck, even if you practice meditation and embrace uncertainty, that in itself is an admission to an answer, the answer in this case just being, “I don’t know, and that’s fine.”

Now that we know the two pillars, all we need to do is apply a tried and tested template and you’ve got yourself a clickbait. Some popular ones include:

Numbers –  Titles with numbers rely on our affinity for symbols and our need to create order and make some sense of this vague blob of infinity we call life.

Visualization – Titles that paint a picture in our brains are very effective. Our ability to visualize is widely used to hook us.

Shock and surprise – This is one of the cheapest tricks in the book. Shock attracts us like a moth to flames. “You won’t believe how young this 70-year-old looks after doing stem cell therapy.”

We break down these templates and more in our full article about writing titles:

23 Tips on How to Write Better Titles for Your Ads and Web Pages

There’s another interesting phenomenon with the release of dopamine that might relate to clickbait titles and anticipation. Dopamine is that feel-good neurotransmitter that’s released in our brain whenever we complete a set task. It can be clearing a row in a stack-up mobile game, or it can also be clicking through some juicy titles.

But here’s the interesting part: Stanford neuroscientist Robert Sopolsky says it isn’t necessarily the object of your arousal that triggers this release. It doesn’t matter if what waits on the other side of that title is 31 kittens that will melt your heart or a 21 shocking photos of celebs with failed plastic surgery.

It is, instead, the anticipation itself that causes the pleasurable effect. So dopamine is released before you even get to the actual content, but you need to click to release it.

Seeing as how changing our default neural infrastructures will take generations, it seems we will forever be at least somewhat susceptible to clickbait. This brings us to the third and final step:

Step 3 – Resolution and restoring balance

Now here’s the crux of it all – resolution will be met and balance restored even if the content doesn’t fit your anticipation, which is why, ultimately, clickbait titles are here to stay. Because even realizing “well I knew this was just a sham – why did I click this” is a conclusion to the story.

And, in some cases, this is even a more satisfying conclusion than content that does meet expectations! You knew it would be b.s., and your instincts proved to be right! Good for you, buddy.

I would love for clickbait titles to go extinct as much as the next person, but in a strange way, the bad clickbait titles are also there to educate us and sharpen our senses. So, I guess maybe I’ll go and take a look at that amazing method to grow my… erm… biceps. Yeah, biceps.

How to make sure Google isn’t messing with your titles

This is worth mentioning, since it’s relevant to your actual workflow in SEO.

It doesn’t matter if you use clickbait or not or what you think of them.

Google can mess with your webpage titles in two ways. It can truncate a title with the well-known ellipsis (…) if the title is too wide (pixel width, not number of characters), and Google can change it altogether to better suit a search term. The best way for you to stay on your guard is by simply enabling the “Title” column on Pro Rank Tracker’s data table:

“Global” is the monthly search volume of that keyword on the respectable search engine

This way, you can see your Google rank, the title that’s displayed on Google for the search term, and the monthly search volume of that keyword.

By the end of the day, you need to make your titles appealing to make your content heard. Otherwise, you’ll simply drown in the sea of other titles in your niche that have applied their marketing “street smarts” game.

Enticing titles rely on the same principles and pillars as clickbaits. But clickbaits are inherently misleading, manipulative and don’t deliver any positive conclusion to our search.

Read about our clickbait axis of evil, and make sure your titles are high quality to match your high-quality content:

Should You Use Clickbait Titles? Pros and Cons

After that, be sure to subscribe to our blog where we publish search engine lore on many important topics, not just titles!

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