Facebook’s New Weapon In The War On Clickbait

Written by Laura Roeder

On August 9, 2016

Facebook announced a huge change to its News Feed algorithm – and you won’t believe what happened next!

(Okay, actually, you probably will.)

Because headlines and links that sound like that – like clickbait – have been around for a long, long time. You’ve probably seen a whole lot of them in your day!

Clickbait Dog

Facebook has literally spent YEARS fighting clickbait.

And why wouldn’t they? Users hate it! They think it’s manipulative and misleading – and they’re right.

In fact, Facebook’s higher-ups have even come right out and said that you should be writing headlines that give people a clear idea of what to expect from your link – NOT ones designed to trick them into clicking!

Still, not all publishers have gotten the message – and Facebook is putting its foot down in a big way.

They’ve poured a lot of time and resources into targeting and banishing clickbait for good, and now their secret weapon is ready for action.

So, what’s Facebook doing about clickbait – and why does it mean everyone (including you!) should be extra careful in the future?

Facebook’s big plan

In the past, Facebook’s methods for identifying clickbait have been based on a lot of guessing. (They generally stuck to looking at stats that could indicate that something was clickbait, but could also mean other things, too. It wasn’t a perfect system.)

After years of studying, though, they’ve developed a way to automatically identify clickbait more effectively than ever before.

How’d they do it?

First, they studied headlines – a LOT of headlines.

Tens of thousands of them, one-by-one, each inspected by actual human people who looked for patterns and kept track of the tell-tale signs of clickbait.

(We’ll share what they found in a second. It’s important.)

Then, they used that information to build a GIANT CLICKBAIT-DESTROYING ROBOT.


Well, not exactly.

But they DID develop a system that will automatically scan headlines and links for the classic signs of clickbait, and flag the ones that don’t meet Facebook’s standards. Posts that get flagged will appear lower in the feed – if they appear at all.

(They describe it as working kind of like the spam filter in your email – it looks for certain traits in your content, and gives it a pass/fail ranking.)

This isn’t just a post-by-post thing, either – it has a cumulative effect.

If you regularly get flagged for posting links that Facebook’s system identifies as clickbait, that can lower the reach for all your posts.

(On the flipside, though, if you stop posting clickbait, Facebook will lift the restrictions on your content’s visibility.)

All this leaves one big, slightly scary question, though:

What is Facebook looking for when it’s flagging clickbait?

After all, they studied tens of thousands of headlines and figured out what signs to look for – it’s probably a good idea to know what exactly those signs are!

The two tell-tale signs of clickbait

Turns out, there are two big things Facebook’s clickbait detection system is looking for in the content of your headlines.

The first thing it looks for is signs of withholding vital information from readers.

You know the type – headlines like:

  • He Said The Wrong Name During His Wedding Vows – And Her Reaction Was Priceless
  • My Heart Broke 13 Seconds Into This Video
  • This Little Girl’s Birthday Wish Will Redeem Your Faith In Humanity

Headlines like these became popular for a reason – they work! The curiosity gap they create tickles some well-documented psychological triggers in your brain, compelling you to click so you can learn answers to the questions the headline implicitly asks.

Tell Me More

Still, almost as well-documented as their effectiveness is the fact that people are sick and tired of these things – so if you’ve been leaning a little too hard on the ol’ curiosity gap and withholding information that a reader would want to know before they click, it’s time to rethink your strategy.

But that’s not the only thing Facebook’s looking for – it’s also targeting headlines that mislead readers.

For example, this is a headline that’s sure to grab someone’s attention:

Declare War

But what if it’s not telling the whole story? A provocative headline is great for driving shares and clicks, but it shouldn’t deliberately mislead readers. What if the more accurate headline looked a little more like this?

Thumb War

See? A totally different angle! Other types of misleading headlines might look something like these:

  • Are The Trees In Your Backyard Actually Slowly Killing You?
  • Why Chocolate Chip Cookies Are Better For You Than Celery
  • Yes, Your Cat Is Reading Your Mind At This Very Moment

Facebook’s investigation into headline trends has revealed that a lot of publishers rely on clever misdirection for grabbing their audience’s attention – and they want to put a stop to it. Don’t rely on misleading readers with headlines that are more shocking than they are accurate – grab their attention with actual, straight-to-the-point facts!

So, these are the types of headlines Facebook is targeting as clickbait – and if you’re writing them, your reach could seriously suffer.

Which means you may be wondering…

How is Facebook identifying these types of headlines?

While Facebook says they’re “using a system that identifies phrases that are commonly used in clickbait headlines,” they haven’t come out and said what exactly any of those phrases are – and frankly, they shouldn’t!

(If everyone had a list of phrases that had been red-flagged, it would be pretty easy to game the system, don’t you think?)

Instead, Facebook wants to make this an opportunity for publishers to work on their good judgment – to understand the actual methodology of writing headlines that are effective while still respecting their readers.

That means you should be more mindful of the headlines you write in the future (and the content you share from OTHER people), but it also means there’s something you can do right now.

Go back and revisit the headlines for anything you share on a regular basis, or anything you’ve written in the past and still promote.

If any of it fits the criteria described above – if it’s either withholding or misleading – give it a little polish so that it isn’t! (Hey, no judgment. It was a popular trend!)

Once you do, you can go back to sharing those updates with confidence – and in the future, your headline writing skills will be stronger than ever!

What do you think of Facebook’s plan to automatically target clickbait headlines? Think it’ll work? Think it’s fair? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below – you won’t BELIEVE what happens next!

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