Every time Facebook announces a change in its newsfeed algorithm, there’s a certain amount of hand-wringing, especially when it mentions that it’ll be punishing “clickbait headlines.” Many critics often point out that this is a frustratingly opaque term and that it’s possible to have a quality headline that induces clicks. Mathew Ingram complains that “Facebook is a black box. No one really has any clue why the site chooses to show or hide certain content.”
But this time Facebook seems to have given a clearer definition of what they mean by “clickbait.”
When we asked people in an initial survey what type of content they preferred to see in their News Feeds, 80% of the time people preferred headlines that helped them decide if they wanted to read the full article before they had to click through. Over time, stories with “click-bait” headlines can drown out content from friends and Pages that people really care about.
So Facebook appears to be forcing publishers to adopt what many already advocate as a golden rule of headline writing, or naming any kind of web copy: Be descriptive. There’s been an infuriating trend recently in headline writing in which the headline is purposefully coy, forcing a user to visit the article before they can discern if it was ever worth visiting in the first place. As any web designer would tell you, this is just bad user experience. What if you were to visit an administrative or government website looking to perform some task but all the links were intentionally vague in an attempt to get you to stay on the site longer? The site’s creators would be mocked as idiots, yet this has become par for the course on many news sites. By adopting this algorithm change, Facebook is forcing the web to adopt better standards, just as Google’s algorithm encourages sites that load faster and have descriptive title tags. If the change results in at least one fewer instance where I need to click on a link just to find out what an article is about, then it will have made my life better.
By which he’s referring to the hyperbolic headlines that plague viral aggregation sites, many of which just take clips from the cadre of late night hosts from the day previously and post them by 9 a.m. so that they’re flooding our Facebook and Twitter streams by the time we get into work in the morning. The headlines are tiresome because they over promise and under deliver, so much so that I can’t even bring myself to take the five minutes to watch anymore when Jimmy Fallon performs some mildly amusing though instantly forgettable skit with a celebrity.