Optimizing headlines for attention can be a good thing.  But when that starts to become the only thing people think about, it’s time for some new content metrics.

Sharing is big business. Rather than focusing millions of dollars on advertising that may or may not stick, companies have realized the power of word of mouth, and have embraced social media and online content as a way to get it. Hardly a week goes by without some new viral video or piece of content ping-ponging around the Internet to the shock and awe of newscasters and advertisers alike. The nightly news quotes views statistics as proof that something is good. Ten million people read or watched something? It must be worth paying attention to.

But as with any currency, as soon as views became valued, people started to game the system. It’s hard to get 10 million people to read an article or watch an entire video. A lot of people have to click on it, watch or read it, and then choose to pass it on. Content like that has to be really good.

As with any currency, as soon as views became valued, people started to game the system.

Of course, views don’t track all that. They just track the number of people that clicked on something, regardless of whether they actually watched or read the whole thing. Click on a headline, read two sentences and leave? That view “counts” just as much as someone who read the whole article. A view is a view.

So content creators started optimizing for headlines that get people to click, regardless of what happens after that. But while these sugary sweet titles may trick our brains into clicking, in the long-run, click bait is bad because it overpromises and underdelivers. The content doesn’t usually live up to the bluster and in the end we’re left disappointed. So while the article itself got a few extra clicks, it undermines trust in the person or site that generated that content, making readers less likely to return in the future. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.

This highlights the shortcomings of focusing on views. Most companies or media outlets don’t just want fleeting attention, they want deeper engagement. Metrics like reading time or share rate (for every 100 people that read a piece, how many share?) are a start in the right direction.


This article is part of a broader discussion on the New York Times about clickbait.  See the full discussion here.

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