Links are, in many ways, the lifeblood of the Internet. They are a good thing but not when they bait you into thinking you're getting something you're not. Links, and more specifically clicking on them, may make the Internet go round, but when that stream becomes a never-ending cycle of buffoonery, scheming and outright lies on sites like Facebook it can be pretty unbearable.
We've all clicked on the headlines screaming "you won't believe what happens next" or maybe something more mysterious like "you'll never guess who did what."
Facebook now says it wants to "weed out" these click-baiting headlines and reduce the noise that these stories bring to countless users' news feeds. The company has a commanding lead over its competitors in social activity, accounting for nearly one in every four posts shared on social media -- so it can afford to be more picky
Substance Over Mystery
If Facebook's effort is genuine and eventually successful it could be a major blow to publishers and new media startups that have turned click-baiting into an art form. But what exactly is click bait?
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"Click-baiting 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. Posts like these tend to get a lot of clicks, which means that these posts get shown to more people, and get shown higher up in news feed," writes Facebook research scientist Khalid El-Arini and product specialist Joyce Tang in a blog post.
When these ambiguous and over-the-top links are packaged with sneak-peek content they can be remarkably eye-catching and difficult to avoid. Facebook appears to be growing tired of these bait-for-click tactics and says the vast majority of users prefer headlines that help them decide if they want to read the full article before clicking through. "Over time, stories with 'click-bait' headlines can drown out content from friends and pages that people really care about," explains Facebook.
But there's a significant ulterior motive at play here as well.
Facebook wants you to stay put and engage on Facebook as long as possible. When a you fall for one of these click-bait headlines you are also, in some cases, leaving Facebook for another online destination entirely. That doesn't help Facebook very much at all.
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"They want to be that digital water cooler" and that means users have to stay on Facebook for that value to endure, says Jordan Enright-Shultz, senior product marketing manager at Adobe Social. "A more engaged audience is more important than a huge one."
Well-Disguised and Intriguing
It won't be easy for Facebook to overcome the intrigue and sometimes well-disguised nature of click bait. To rid your news feeds of this type of spam, Facebook says it will look at multiple factors and signals to determine what is and what is not click bait.
"We will start taking into account whether people tend to spend time away from Facebook after clicking a link, or whether they tend to come straight back to news feed when we rank stories with links in them," the company writes in explaining the change. "Another factor we will use to try and show fewer of these types of stories is to look at the ratio of people clicking on the content compared to people discussing and sharing it with their friends. If a lot of people click on the link, but relatively few people click like, or comment on the story when they return to Facebook, this also suggests that people didn't click through to something that was valuable to them."
Sites like Upworthy.com are experiencing phenomenal growth by using a tried-and-true formula the company describes as such: "Sensational and substantial. Entertaining and enlightening. Shocking and significant."
As you might expect, it put a rather positive spin on the news in a prepared statement: "We welcome a focus from Facebook on engaged time. Upworthy is driving well over 100 million attention minutes per month and 300,000 attention minutes per post published to Facebook.
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Although Facebook doesn't call out any site or publisher by name, it's clear about what the outcome will be for those determined to be purveying in click bait:
'Just Give Me Candy'
Coincidentally, Facebook's latest attempt to unclutter the news feed came the same day that John Oliver of HBO's "Last Week Tonight" posted a short video in which he lampoons these over-reaching headlines.
"What happens at the two-minute mark of this video will amaze you," Oliver says to hook the viewer in and further emphasize his point. "The Internet does not know how to describe things anymore," he adds. "If you're going to give me candy, just give me candy."