How the Notorious Clickbait Title Came to be (+How to Monitor Your Webpage Titles Properly on Google)

The clickbait title. This recurring theme in internet articles (that we’ve sort of gotten used to) seems to be the industry standard in one form or another. Some are posted by honest attention seekers, while others are downright misleading scam bait.

 

The definition of “clickbait”, according to the Merriam Webster Dictionary:

Something (such as a headline) designed to make readers want to click on a hyperlink, especially when the link leads to content of dubious value or interest.

 

And according to Urban Dictionary:

It means what you think it means: bait for clicks. It’s a link which entices you to click on it.

The “bait” comes in many shapes and sizes, but it is usually intentionally misleading and/or crassly provocative. Clicking will inevitably cause disappointment. Clickbait is usually created for money.

 

Not very flattering, yet most of us have at some point resorted to using some form of clickbait in the marketing game. The truth of the matter is, attention on the internet is very limited, and you’re competing against possibly tens of titles on the exact same subject sprawled in front of the viewer, so the temptation to use more flashy and loud titles is perfectly understandable.

 

Ever since internet marketing began, clickbaits have garnered controversy, and rightfully so, since many scams and malware-infested websites use some outrageous clickbait to get that toxic foot in the door. Anyone with a little experience on the internet has hopefully activated some sort of sensible judgment regarding which ones to avoid and which ones deserve a chance.

 

At times, it might seem like clickbait is a recent phenomenon of our times—that it’s only a symptom of internet culture and a short attention span that’s seeped into the marketing industry as a whole and became a very familiar part of the internet landscape. But the truth is, “clickbait” titles existed long before the internet and have been around even before there were printing presses and books to sell.

 

The Yellow Kid Wars

Before we get to The Yellow Kid and how he fits into the story, we need to travel back in time more than 2,000 years.

 

It all began in Ancient Rome. Acta Diurna were official notices and announcements carved daily on metal or stone tablets and posted on the public message boards of the time for the people to view. These were government-approved messages, so not exactly ‘free press’, but it was a start.

 

 

Since the majority of users for this ancient Roman Reddit were illiterate, it’s assumed some of the titles would have been formulated purposely in an abbreviated, sensational style to make them easy and appealing for spreading by word of mouth. The government understood that “juicy” messages would spread better than boring notices. So, it’s reasonable to assume that whenever a political nudge was required, a more scandalous approach was taken by the Roman government to help the word spread. Unfortunately, though, there are no surviving fragments left.

 

According to Mitchell Stephen’s book A History of News, this was possibly the first bud of sensationalism. The premise was (and still is) that the masses don’t need to thoroughly understand a subject to be intrigued and influenced by it. In fact, most would rely on just the title’s summary to react to it, form an opinion and spread it. You just need the title to be loud, outrageous and exaggerated, and you can hook minds to the most trivial of subjects that have little to no impact on anyone’s life. Great examples of that were the huge waves of such titles we saw during the Y2K scare and the 2012 Mayan calendar doomsday-prophecy fiasco, when every mass media outlet was riding these trends for months on end.

 

Incidentally, this can also be used to spread damaging misinformation quite easily. We saw this effect splendidly in action in recent years, with the ridiculously easy spread of targeted fake news. A good sensational title was enough to prompt sharing and could shift opinions like pinballs, even without a view of the actual content.

 

Fast forward 1,400 years to the invention of the printing press, eventually leading to the introduction of commercially available paper and the need to attract readers for profit or otherwise. Sensationalism in the press slowly developed as more and more people became literate and printed paper became more popular. It truly picked up during the 19th century, when attention-grabbing rhetorical techniques were used in most topics: news, fiction, science, modern technology, finance and more. A notable example is the renowned British Renaissance Man Thomas Browne (1605-1682), who used provocative titles in his writing such as “Do Elephants Have Knees?” and “Who Would Win in a Fight, a Toad or a Spider?” (which apparently involved him pitting a toad versus a spider in a battle to the death, and writing of the outcome). Other than adding more than 800 words to the English language, Thomas Browne is also widely regarded as the man who pioneered popular science and brought flair to the field of scientific writing, which was written rather blandly up to that point.

 

1896. Late Industrial Era, New York. Faster and cheaper printing, low prices for paper and postage, and big bonuses from ad revenue all sparked a wide distribution of popular newspapers to the public. Dozens of newspapers, just like webpages today, were battling for readership and attention. Every “click” back in the day was a few cents that a customer paid to read his paper of choice. When faced with the classic newspaper stand (an ancient version of the Google SERP), a reader had to choose among the barrage of titles showcased to them.

 

An ancient form of SERP

 

An old and deprecated form of AdWords

 

And now, we finally get to “The Yellow Kid“–the accidental harbinger of the modern clickbait. This is where the use of extreme titles started in the modern, heavily-commercial, profit-driven sense we know today.

“The Yellow Kid” comic was a popular strip attached to The New York World paper. The drama began when the original creator of Yellow Boy decided to move the strip to the direct competitor of the World: The New York Journal. Knowing the comic strip had commercial value and attracted readers, this move sparked an all-out commercial war between the two papers. In addition to lowering their prices to just 1 cent, the two papers also started publishing more and more attention-grabbing titles and stories to compete with each other. All this angered Ervin Wardman, the editor of the more-respectable New York Press, who wrote, “The ‘new journalism’ continues to think up a varied assortment of new lies,” referring to their tendencies to publish sensational news, fake interviews and outlandish stories. Once the dust had settled, the Journal beat the World in sales, thanks in large part to their “The Yellow Kid” comics, and a new term was soon born for the undisputed masters of clickbaiting: yellow journalism.

 

Outcault, R. F. and Archie Gunn, poster for the New York Journal, American Humorist. October 1896. R. F. Outcault’s The Yellow Kid: A Centennial Celebration of the Kid Who Started the Comics. Northampton, Mass.: Kitchen Sink Press, 1995. Plate 106.

The Age of Internet Marketing

The vast majority of links on the internet, be it ads or search results, are clickable titles. We are constantly flooded with new information, so it’s no wonder the more exciting and enticing titles usually win. Formulating a good title is part of a successful marketing strategy.

 

While using clickbait titles is nothing out of the ordinary no matter how much they’re frowned upon, the most efficient title would be the one that’s the most relevant to the search query or the targeted keyword while also being intriguing. So, let’s say a person searches for an affordable dash cam. He will most likely be met with titles such as:

 

“The Best Dash Cams (Review and Buying Guide) 2018 – Car Bibles”

“Top 10 Cheap Dash Cams to BUY in 2018”

“This Powerful Little Known Dash Cam Puts Big Brands to Shame”

 

All of these could be construed as clickbait titles. Depending what the actual content is, they may be justifiable or simply misleading. You may use them in your webpages and you may not. The reality of the situation is that your titles HAVE to be enticing to intrigue people and cause them to enter your content, otherwise you’ll fail to gain traffic. The line between what’s considered enticing vs. “clickbait” is blurry, but here’s the gist of it: you need to deliver on the title’s promise and avoid using exaggerated statements. If you give your visitors more or less what the title promised, then you’re at least not misleading them, and that is a solid start.

 

How to monitor your titles on Google’s SERP

Regardless of whether you choose to follow the clickbait route or not, you should know that you need to keep track of your webpage titles on Google along with your Google ranks for any SEO campaign. Google has a limit on characters in the SERP and will even change the title at times to suit certain search queries. If the title is too long, it will get truncated and end with the familiar ellipsis:

 

 

Titles and search engine ranks go hand in hand. If you’re not in the top Google ranks, your title is as good as invisible. In addition to creating a good title, you also need to get it to the top of the SERP, and this is where Google rank tracking comes in.

 

It would be a shame if you managed to get your title on the first page of Google’s SERP only to discover it’s truncated and doesn’t deliver what you intended. This is why we display your webpage title along with your Google organic ranks—so you will always know that everything is shown just as you intended:

 

To read our complete title guide for Google, here is the full article:

Why you should be keeping an eye on your page’s title in the SERP and why your CTR depends on it

 

We believe there should be a balance. A title needs to be both honest and enticing…a sort of positive clickbait. There’s nothing wrong with alluring your target audience to prefer your content over all others with a nice, well-phrased, spicy title. This is a highly competitive field we work in, after all. What do you think? Tell us your thoughts in the comments below.

 

If you enjoyed this article, you should really check out our Extra Value series where we dive into more general topics surrounding search engines and the internet. And subscribe to our blog, if you haven’t already, so you won’t miss out on articles such as this one, as well as SEO and rank-tracking tips and news.

 


 

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