What Is Clickbait?

What's really happening when you click that link to finish an irresistible story

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Have you ever been so interested in a few lines of text in a post somewhere that you clicked on the text to finish reading the story? That's clickbait, an advertiser's over-the-top method for attracting viewer's to an ad or ad-based article.

What Is Clickbait?

Clickbait is defined by Wikipedia as "web content that is aimed at generating online advertising revenue, especially at the expense of quality or accuracy, relying on sensationalist headlines to attract click-throughs and to encourage forwarding of the material over online social networks."

The key word to remember here is 'sensationalist' – clickbait headlines typically aim to exploit the "curiosity gap", providing just enough information to make the reader curious, but not enough to satisfy their curiosity without clicking through to the linked content. Click-throughs are what you are called - the reader who clicks the link to go through to the next stage of the bait.

Why Clickbait Is Used

Clickbaiting techniques can be used for both good and evil purposes. On the good side, you have the promotion of quality content to a large audience. In the middle, you have the viral promotion of average content for the sole purpose of generating revenue. Finally, on the "dark side" of the spectrum, you have clickbaiting for the purpose of promoting malicious links to malware, phishing sites, scams, etc. 

Hackers and scammers want to reach the widest possible audience, much like advertisers do. If they can get you to click a link, they can potentially trick you into installing malicious software on your computer. They could also send you to a phishing site, or any other number of scam-related sites.

Much like 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, etc. Check out our article on The Shadowy World of Malware Affiliate Marketing for an in-depth look at this topic.

How Can You Tell the Good Clickbait From the Bad Clickbait?

Ask yourself these questions the next time you see something that looks suspicious.

1. Is The Clickbait Promoting Something That Sounds Way Too Good To Be True?

If a scammer is using clickbait methods to promote a scam, the clickbait will usually allude to a deal that just sounds too good to be true. This should be a red flag to stay away. An example of a scam related clickbait headline might be: "Is The Price of This PS4 a Glitch, or Is It For Real?, Order One Before They Realize What They've Done!"

The Resulting Danger: The link you click on would likely take you to some shady fake retail website where your credit card information would be stolen as you tried to purchase a PS4 at some crazy low price that was just used to lure you to the site.

2. Does The Clickbait Smell Phishy?

If a phisher is trying to redirect you to their site to try and steal your personal information, then they are going to probably make the clickbait story relate to the phishing site's target. They might say something such as "When You See What This Bank Did to Customers, You'll Want to Take All Your Money and Run!"

The Resulting Danger: They then might provide a link to what appears to be the bank's login page but instead is a site designed to harvest your banking account credentials or other personal information.

3. Does The Link Ask You To Install Something In Order to See A Video Mentioned in The Clickbait Headline?

One of the classic clickbait techniques used by scammers and hackers is to claim that the link is to some video of a well-known celebrity doing something scandalous. The clickbait will promise a payoff in the form of a video. An example would be "When You See What <Celebrity> Does to The Man In This Car, You'll Gasp!!"

When you click on the story, you will likely be told that you need to install a special "Video Viewer" app or "Video codec", or something similar in order to watch the video.

The Resulting Danger: The new page will then offer to install it for you or point you to the installer, which turns out to be a malware package that you end up installing on your PC in hopes of being able to see the promised video. Unfortunately, it was all a big scam because there really was no scandalous video, it was all just a ploy to play on your curiosity and get you to install malware or generate traffic for the affiliate marketing program that the scammer or hacker is receiving money from.