It's a Trap! How To: Avoid Clicking Bad Linkbait Links

Source: Day of the Jedi
*surfing Twitter feed*
Hmm, that looks like an interesting article. *click*
Waiiiiiit a second, they didn't say anything!
And didn't I see that on another site earlier?
That was a waste of time...

Ladies and gentlemen, you've just been link-baited.

Linkbait is the term used to explain the practice of creating content specifically in hopes that other people will like it, share it and link to it. It's the content equivalent of a viral video. And most of the time, it sucks. Oh sure, there are some people who are really good at making up content with the intent of driving traffic to their websites, increasing their search engine optimization and potential client base. In return, they offer their readers valuable, useful content. But most of the time, linkbait is absolutely terribly done (read: bait and switch) . A lot of the content that gets posted is written to ride the popularity of the latest buzzword, created solely with the intent of driving traffic to a website, without offering any value back to the reader.

And with the worst linkbait, the feeling you are left with is usually indifference or disappointment. Ripped off that you will never get those few minutes of your life back.

Here are some for instances, examples of linkbait that have come across my streams in the last week: (with titles paraphrased to protect the guilty)
  • The Top N Mistakes [famous CEO] Made
  • Why Blackberry 10 will fail/ won't fail 
  • Why Vine is good/ sucks 
[Aside: In case you haven't heard of Vine, last week, Twitter announced this new-ish service which allows people to share 6-second videos. The idea is to provide the visual equivalent of 140 characters (or a pic) in a short video.]

The thing that struck me most about these posts is that the ones critiquing the services were posted within minutes/ hours of them becoming available. And of course, after the first 24 hours, there were thousands of social media "experts" and "gurus" posting the requisite "first out of the gate with an opinion" posts.

Which strikes me as funny.

Experts are experts because they have the experience and insight to effectively evaluate and anticipate trends in a particular industry. And social media is full of "experts" who, let's be honest, are really communications/ marketing/ public relations practitioners who claim to understand how to most effectively use the suite of tools that encompass social media to promote companies and engage with their key stakeholders. Fair enough.

But when a new tool or service launches, all I see in my Twitter stream and RSS reader for 48-72 hours are announcements and article promotions that claim to tell you what you should think about these. Makes sense, who better to tell you whether you should invest your time in a new tool than an expert, right?

Not exactly.

My favourite tech and social media journos are the ones who start by reporting factually, describing the announcements and then finishing with a promise to do their homework and get back to you with their opinions. In the event of a launch, they would:
  • live blog a play-by-play of the announcement,
  • offer up a summary of the high points, and
  • identify what they think they need/ want to look into further.
Sounds great! I get everything I need and no b-s. And I know that they will be posting subsequent posts with more content as they do their homework. My faves like CNET and Engadget work like this.

But with the advent of blogs, the fall of print and the resulting quest for eyeballs, content creation is more competitive than ever. More and more sites have turned to posting as much as they can as quickly as possible in order to be considered the first out of the gate with an opinion. Which means that most of them turn out to be poorly formed, or at worst, UNinformed. These are cheap opportunities for traffic and worst, a waste of our time.

The other article I listed earlier, the one with the famous CEO's name in the headline, was so obviously linkbait, it wasn't even funny. The CEO hadn't been in the news in a while, but the company was on the cusp of financial reporting and product announcements. It was quite obvious that the news magazine was just planning to ride the wave of people searching for the company name in order to drive more links to their site. And their already high popularity would bring them to the fore-front of the search results. The article was thin, weak, a total stretch and could have just as easily been called: 5 Mistakes Not to Make as CEO. But that wouldn't have brought as many eyeballs.

So, let's recap: bad linkbait is cr*p content with catchy headines, produced and posted with the intent of driving traffic. Let's be honest, as readers, we don't have the time to waste on such garbage.

Avoiding Bad Linkbait

In order to help you be more vigilant while you surf, here are some tricks to maintain your wits about you and minimize the likelihood that you will be trapped by linkbait:
  • Start by avoiding sites that are known for repurposing content from other sources: A little homework about your fave news sources can be valuable to find out if they are generating their own content or repurposing it from other sources. Might as well avoid the middle man and follow those original sources.
  • Read titles carefully: too many buzzwords is a sign of linkbait. Did that product or service just launch? Are they just reporting on the launch or claiming to have an opinion? How would that source in particular already have an opinion or a strategy regarding how to put it in use? 
  • Assess the suitability of the topic to that particular source: Is that subject typical for that source? Does that seem out of left field for that author/ company? If it smells like linkbait, it's probably linkbait.
  • Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me: Have you fallen trap to linkbait from that source before? Chances are, this might be linkbait again.
  • The tone or opinion is radical: There are always naysayers, but does this article seem to offer a completely different stance from the rest of the market? Is this author/ company usually so extreme in their views? There are tons of examples of authors who will write contrarian pieces just to stir up controversy and make a name for themselves. (While some of these can be well-written, fun pieces to read — and sift through the comments — inciting a little bit of controversy can be a cheap trick for soliciting eyeballs.)
  • You have to click more than once to access the article: By this I don't mean that there is an interstitial page with an ad on it, I mean that you get to a page offering a summary or the first line of the article and you have to click again to see the whole thing. The site may be artificially driving up clicks in order to sell advertising. More clicks = more $$.
So there you go, linkbait is a common practice in online marketing and content promotion. When done well, it should deliver valuable content to the user, and earn the author/ company eyeballs in return. Poorly done, it can make users feel like they have been duped into clicking unnecessarily to a useless piece of content, a waste of cyberspace. By being vigilant and keeping your wits about, you can learn to identify bad linkbait before it traps you.

(And avoid it yourself: I could have called this post "6 Tips to Avoid Linkbait", but the irony was not lost on me... ;)