Why I used linkbait and why I stopped

Paul Boag

Linkbait is a subject of much controversy online with many deriding its use. However, does it actually work?

For those of you who read my site on a regular basis, you will have noticed I have been using an increasing number of linkbait headlines over the last few months.

What is linkbait?

These are headlines designed specifically to encourage people to link, share or click. They are often purposely provocative, use loaded terminology (e.g. act, urgent, secret, discover), pose questions or are packed with compelling numbers.

Some examples of linkbait headings I have used recently include…

Is linkbait bad?

Linkbait headlines are controversial, with some promoting them as an effective way of generating more traffic, while others compare them to tabloid headlines and appealing to the lowest common denominator.

Personally I was undecided about how I felt. Linkbait felt manipulative, but if it worked, was it any worse than the myriad of other techniques we use to nudge users into certain actions?

Testing the effectiveness of linkbait

In order to decide how I was going to advise clients over the issue of linkbait, I concluded that I would need to test it to see if it worked at all and what (if any) the negative impact was.

As I did with search engine optimisation, and many other subjects, I used Boagworld as my test bed. If I started using linkbait here, how would it impact my traffic levels and the way people interacted with my posts?

After several months of monitoring I am ready to share some of my observations.

Linkbait does drive more traffic, at least at first

The first thing I can confirm is that on my site at least, linkbait headlines did cause a bump in traffic. Posts were shared more, and more people clicked through to view my posts. In short, linkbait worked as advertised, at least initially.

However, the more I used linkbait titles the less impact they had. Like the boy who cried wolf, my readers stopped believing my headlines over time. They grew numb to the sensationalist titles.

If I allowed a gap between linkbait titles, I noticed that I could cause a spike of traffic again. But the more I used linkbait the less effective it became.

Linkbait damaged other metrics

Even when linkbait did succeed in attracting more visitors, it had little real impact on my other key metrics. In fact dwell time decreased as did the percentage of users converting (signing up for my newsletter). In short linkbait generated more traffic, but they were less engaged. It provided quantity, but little in the way of quality.

Linkbait annoyed users

Worse still, many of my followers quickly picked up on the fact that I was using linkbait and started to criticise me. I was annoying my loyal readers with tabloid style post titles and reducing the integrity of my brand.

Admittedly my audience is probably more aware of these ‘tricks’ than most. However, I am sure this will change over time. Web professionals are normally a fairly good indicator of where others will follow eventually. If web professionals are moaning about linkbait today, then the general public will be tomorrow.

I won’t be using linkbait anymore

I can see why people are attracted to linkbait. It does generate a lot of traffic (at least initially) in much the same way as a successful viral campaign does. However like a viral campaign, it doesn’t generate long term followers and certainly does little to increase your engagement and conversion levels.

I am glad I did this experiment as it has proved my initial gut feel, but you can be sure I will not be using linkbait going forward.

What a good headline is all about

For me a good headline should describe the key findings of the post in the clearest language possible, using the terminology people actually use. This provides two benefits. First, using the title to summarise a post improves scanability. Second, including terminology that people actually use helps with search engine rankings.

Linkbait ultimately muddied these two objectives. It was hard to write a title that summarised the post and contained keywords people would use in addition to all of the numbers, questions and active words that linkbait demanded. In short, linkbait was simply a distraction from what mattered.

“Float, fishing line and hook underwater. ” image courtesy of Bigstock.com