It’s Yom Kippur, which means there’s nothing to do but die for melted brie and think about all of the bad things I’ve done this year (like the neon nail polish I continue to wear despite the fact that it’s fall). Another cardinal sin I’ve committed that I think has larger implications is falling prey to click bait – which (not too soon, I hope?) is the swine flu of digital media.
A few years ago, we discovered that, by implementing certain code-related practices, we could boost SEO scores. The algorithm is still largely mystical and elusive, but any SEO nerd knows that Google favors certain user-friendly phrases and buzzwords over others; that limiting use of outbound links to generate what some might call inorganic traffic depletes SEO score; that good content trumps lots of it. It's a work in progress, and by no means formulaic.
BuzzFeed came along and had little interest in mobilizing SEO techniques per se – instead they were interested in generating content (if you can call it that) that went viral in the quickest amount of time possible. It was a cute little science experiment that evolved into a digital revolution. In eight years, they’ve garnered a global audience of 150 million people. That’s like, five entire Canadas watching cats sneeze.
But BuzzFeed is way more than just cats. They share their rapidly expanding platform with investigative journalism and heartfelt essays. News. First-person accounts at the front lines of war. They didn’t have to do this – after all, their cats-only recipe was kind of a genius ploy on its own. But from what I can deduce, they’ve infused the same branding techniques into their cat videos as they have with, say, a piece called Inside The Chilling Online World Of The Women Of ISIS.
That's a headline that gets my attention, and perhaps for the wrong reasons. “Chilling” is definitely a word I’d ascribe to the piece, but that’s a sentiment an unbiased editor should allow readers to discover on their own. Sadly, that's a very understated example of click bait; sharing links on social media has become a natural disaster, void of substance and full of cheap marketing. "OMG you HAVE to see what happened when these two celebrities were in the same room that one time at that place!"
Herein lies the conflict of click bait: you. Can’t. not. Click on it. And you don’t want to. You're a slave to it. It’s sensationalist, and your journalism professor told you that that was a naughty, naughty thing. But you hate-click on it anyway just to see what all the fuss was about – much like I hate-watch New Girl because Jess Day really irks me.
Click bait is founded on the notion that a sexy headline is worth millions in revenue, and less so in great content. It’s a more direct, aggressive form of SEO if you will. SEO best practices can take months to take shape, while a “you have to see this to believe it”-type click bait headline could amass hundreds of thousands of clicks in one day, thereby enhancing its unpaid, organic rankings fairly quickly.
There’s a certain elegance, a command of language, a confidence in refraining from click bait. New York Times digital articles boast relatively easy-to-search SEO-friendly headlines, with, in most cases, an obscurely compelling print headline listed at the bottom of the webpage (because of course, SEO headlines on paper are just a sad missed opportunity for poetry). The NYT would be the laughing stock of the schoolyard (like, gimme your lunch money, loser!-status) if they were ever caught pulling any of that click bait funny business. That, and Facebook was smart enough to ban click bait a few months ago.
So pretty much, SEO is like going to the gym and eating paleo, while clickbait is saying eff it and proceeding to saw off a leg to lose 10 pounds.
Since I’m click baiting (and hey! It worked – you’re reading this), I might as well sin again and sneak in that melted brie.