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Have Current Metrics Created the Era of Clickbait?

Metrics, numbers, data, data, data, we all use it, some of us hide behind it, some of us use it to retroactively fit our theories, some of us are data scientists and use it with due caution. Data is everywhere and generally, manipulated so much so as to be virtually meaningless.

The rise of click­bait and linkbait is a direct re­sult of the fail­ure to measure what really mat­tersFrank Rose

This is a quote is taken from a post that asks if our collective poor understanding of metrics has lead to the current clickbait trend.

Hear me out.

This is your brain on clickbait

This is your brain on clickbait

“Cute organic cat saves even cuter vegan puppy from a piano-playing great white shark, you won’t believe what happened next…”

You are duty-bound to click. Of course you do. We all do.

It defies the laws of procrastination not to. You click, see something altogether less compelling than the headline would suggest, skim the headline, feel cheated, then sullied, then angry then leave to the next link screaming for your attention.

And so it goes on. The dark playground of the internet.

This all takes around 3 seconds, based on my sorry experience. 3 measly seconds, not enough time to have read the article, not enough time to have read the comments section, not enough time for me to have clicked on other articles by the same insightful editorial team, not enough time for me to form a basic understanding of the publication’s brand and voice and where they fit into the publishing ecosystem, not enough time to notice the subtle design details, in just the right muted colours to encourage trust but entice me.

Not enough time at all for anything other than the quick and dirty click in click off.

However this teetering on the slippery slope of your intellectual respectability aside, the publisher is happy for the moment. Why? For the most part because some ads will have loaded during your micro-visit and the publisher will have made 0.002 cents.

Scale this up one million times and lo, a business model emerges, that of adverts generating the profits, the same publishing model of old.

However, this clickbait and related Adsense * industry feels to me like the search industry before Panda. Remember that? Keyword stuffing, forum links, link farms? All the tactics that were devalued overnight? To me, I feel that Adsense (and other ad platforms, I’ll stick to Adsense for the sake of brevity) is creating similar problem as it leads to clickbait “journalism”.

How it Used to Be

Let me recap the pre-digital publishing business model: our eyeballs are valuable because they were hitherto gauged as a standin for our attention. Advertisers wanted our attention so we could engage with their brand and products and thus become more likely to eventually buy whatever it is they are selling. Certain brands would appear in certain publications, Chanel, for example, does not place print ads in The National Enquirer.

But Where are We Now?

However, now, as site visitors ping on and off hundreds of almost identical sites, there is no sense of brand loyalty towards the entity supplying the content. I don’t favour the fluffy puppies of the Huffington Post over Reddit: I have no preference, just show me the cutest ones, quickly.

So even though clickbait  has its place, it doesn’t work long-term. Not only because there is always a cheap imitation site that can launch  with lower operating costs, although this is certainly true. Upworthy is this year’s Demand Media after all. But because it isn’t offering anything more than a cheap thrill. This means the ads (increasingly worthless because there are so many places to see the ads, not like in the pre-internet era when there was a limited number of platforms on which to advertise) but ads are not adding any value to the brand identity of the publishing site, nor are those sites building any sort of long-term quality audience.

But what do I do with this?

The takeaway for me, is that as marketers it is important to start paying  attention to the right metrics  and educating clients to this end. Metrics that speak to commitment, not just a summer fling. Because, and here’s the clanger, I believe that engagement metrics will become of greater importance, in terms of AdSense and perhaps the search results too.

I called Google and they confirmed this.

No, of course not. I admit that I’m now into entering into murky territory but clickbait, whilst entertaining in the short-term does not offer long-term value to internet users. Of course, it is not Google’s responsibility to decide what constitutes good journalism, however there might become more of a divide, at an industry-level between the admirable content produced by The New Yorker say, versus cat videos. As the distinctions become clearer, so perhaps will their placement in the algorithms. This in turn, could contribute to different ad products for the two distinct experiences. It’s a bit of a leap, but I am not alone in this. Fast Company, betting on the engagement model, starting experimenting with slow live blogs in 2013, which in turn increased their Time on Site by 42%.

This is a working theory, an observation if you will, so I’d love to hear your thoughts on this. In the meantime here are some specific examples of the sort of metrics to focus on for your publishing clients.

Google Analytics

Client Quotes: Organic + Social Traffic >> Offer: Time on Site, Page Views and New

Traffic alone is a short-term gauge, to better understand how your business is growing look at new versus repeat visitors, the number of page views, bounce rate and time on site. If all of this is too much to focus on, time on site is, for me, the most revealing metric in this instance. It reveals the extent to which people are engaged with your content, not bouncing on and off the page in less time than it would take to read it.


Client Quotes: Number of Tweets >> Offer: Unique Tweets versus Generic Tweets

Emphasise unique tweets about a post, not generic tweets simply re-tweeting the headline.

The thinking behind this is obvious: if someone writes their own tweet about a piece of content, it is more likely that they have read the content. Generic tweets, whilst potentially useful, are just too easy to share without having to even read the content. Don’t be seduced by the generic tweet!

Other Social Sites

Client Quotes: Likes >> Offer: Shares + Comments



Sarah Kershaw is a digital marketing consultant and writer based in New York City, working with an array of clients to optimise their digital footprint. She is interested in the mysteries of the intuitive user experience and the power of words.
  • I think calling for greater maturity in the use of metrics is spot on. As advertisers mature they will demand more from digital than simply display ads, this will then encourage publishers to choose wiser metrics around engagement and driving behaviour.