What Is Clickbait?

You'll be shocked by what's really going on!

Carrot hanging from branch

Rusty Hill / Getty Images

You spot a tantalizing headline and begin to read a few lines of what promises to be a juicy online article. To finish reading the story, you have to click on a link. This is an example of clickbait, web content that's been specifically designed to generate advertising revenue.

The headlines are always sensational, but the quality and accuracy of the article you arrive at are sometimes quite poor, and it's likely filled with ads. Is clickbait a harmless way to lure potential buyers to advertising? Or is there more to it than that?

Here's a look at clickbait, its purposes, and when you should be wary of that irresistible headline.

Clickbait articles can be found on Facebook and other social media sites, on magazine sites, or any other content-filled website.

What Does Clickbait Look Like?

A clickbait ad has a snappy, sensational headline, often with a "You won't believe it" tone. List-based articles are popular clickbait, forcing readers to scroll and keep clicking. The articles are generally short and don't contain terribly original content, and sometimes they don't even match their fascinating headlines.

Clickbait advertisement example, with dog staring intently at screen and the headline
CC by-SA 4.0

Why Is Clickbait Used?

Clickbait is used by some legitimate businesses as content marketing designed to boost traffic to a website. It's a fast way of generating traffic and it can even produce results when used sparingly.

But there are some serious downsides to using clickbait for content marketing. Customers might resent being lured to an unhelpful, annoying article, and businesses don't want to be synonymous with wasted time and misinformation.

The Dark Side of Clickbait

Some clickbait isn't an attempt at marketing at all, but rather a way to spread malicious links to malware, phishing sites, and other online scams.

Like advertisers, hackers and scammers want to reach the widest possible audience. If an unsuspecting user clicks on a link, they can unwittingly install malware onto their computer or be lured to a scam-related site.

It's important to realize that scammers are very motivated. Just as traditional advertisers have traffic incentives and affiliate marketing programs, the bad guys also have similar, albeit more sinister, incentive systems known as Malware Affiliate Marketing Programs, where hackers and scammers pay other hackers and scammers to infect computers with malware, scareware, rootkits, and more.

Good Clickbait vs. Bad Clickbait

How can you tell benign, harmless clickbait from clickbait that can lead to malware and scams? Ask yourself these questions the next time you see something that looks suspicious.

Is It Too Good to Be True?

Is the clickbait promoting something that sounds way too good to be true? This is a big red flag that you're dealing with harmful clickbait. Some examples include, "Lose 10 Pounds While You Sleep," or "Is the Price of This PS4 a Glitch, or Is It for Real? Order One Before They Realize What They've Done!"

In the PS4 example, the link could take you to some shady, fake retail website where your credit card information would be stolen as you try to nab that great deal.

Does the Clickbait Smell Phishy?

A phisher might try to redirect you to a site where they could steal your personal information. For example, a headline might read, "When You See What This Bank Did to Customers, You'll Want to Take All Your Money and Run!" A concerned reader might click on the link and be delivered to what looks like the bank's login page. Instead, it would be a site designed to harvest your banking account credentials or other personal information.

Are You Prompted to Install Something?

A classic clickbait technique used by scammers and hackers is to promote a link to a video of a famous person doing something scandalous. For example, "When You See What [Celebrity] Does to the Man in This Car, You'll Gasp!!"

When you click on the story, you'll be told you need to install a special "video viewer" app or "video codec" to watch the video. When you agree to install the program, you'll actually install malware onto your PC. There's no scandalous celebrity video, just trickery and the potential vulnerability of your personal data.

Don't be tempted by social media quizzes that promise to reveal your animal spirit or warrior name. These types of clickbait social media quizzes are frequently used by cybercriminals to trick you into downloading malware or steal your personal information.