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A Blogger Goes Looking For A Catchy Title. You Will Be Shocked at What He Found!

by Eric Hall

January 4, 2014

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Donate Writing titles for my blog posts here on Skeptoid have always been a bit of a conundrum. It ends up being a mix of thinking back to my high school English classes, influences from modern internet writing, and my desire to make sure the title reflects the content of the piece so I don't waste the reader's time. Recently, us Skeptoid bloggers have had a discussion on blog titles, and how a title can really drive blog hits if it is catchy enough. Spreading the message of science and skepticism is vitally important. But is using a trendy pattern the best way to do so?

A big part of my fear is anecdotal. Over the last year or so, my social media feeds have blown up with links from sites like Upworthy, Faithit, and similar sites that don't generate their own content, but instead blast out content already on the web, and put catchy or controversial titles on them to drive more traffic. Other sites like Natural News, beyond Top Secret, and other sites repeat misleading and controversial pieces of news to drive traffic to their sites. There is also the zombie memes, which are stories that are old, but are given a fresh face and presented as new, even if long debunked. Most have some kind of compelling picture or graphic as the link picture in the social media feeds. I find myself avoiding these links because they are generally worthless, and I understand what they are doing is driving traffic, not spreading useful information.

There seems to be a consensus among internet leaders that this "link bait" or "click bait" can be good or bad depending on the approach and purpose. Matt Cutts of Google gave somewhat of an endorsement of linkbait (the word shows up both as one word or two depending on where you look) in a blog post from several years ago:
Linkbaiting sounds like a bad thing, but especially if it’s interesting information or fun, it doesn’t have to have negative connotations. I hereby claim that content can be both white-hat and yet still be wonderful “bait” for links (e.g. Danny’s spam email analysis). And generating information or ideas that people talk about is a surefire way to generate links. Personally, I’d lean toward producing interesting data or having a creative idea rather than spouting really controversial ideas 100% of the time. If everything you ever say is controversial, it can be entertaining, but it’s harder to maintain credibility over the long haul.
Eric Ward thinks of link bait more as I do, with its negative connotation. As he summarizes:
No matter how clever the Link Bait, if it does nothing more than cause a little buzz or drive-by traffic, then you’ve wasted time and opportunity. Any site can fool people once, even twice. I’d rather have one person bookmark my site, re-visit it, share it, and socialize it than have 10 people come by for three seconds and leave.
This is my concern as well. If I were to put the "This story started one way, but ended up completely different" style headline on all of my posts here, would I see an initial spike in traffic, but would people be less likely in the future to click on those links. Would it perhaps a case of fool me once, I won't get fooled again?

A further case for my personal apprehension against link bait is thisarticle from the Search Engine Journal from 2009. In it are examples of how to create link bait. Here are a couple of gems:
The Sensational Effect

WTF!? That’s just crazy. Totally bizarre. Weird. OMG. As it turns out, the web has become the crucible of all things sensational and over-the-top. Matt Drudge from The Drudge Report has become an enormous influencer and multi-millionaire by exploiting sensational news. Browse through his headlines and you’ll see more than enough examples of sensationalism.

Sensational news is the fuel of the Internet. Just take a look at the hottest searches in Google Trends " they tend to be dominated by sensational topics. Or browse the top articles on digg over the last 7 days. Here are some example titles: “Baby-faced boy is father at 13? “Joaquin Phoenix’s Bizarre Letterman Appearance” “Amazing Dance Caught On Jumbotron.”
An Appeal To Reason
Human beings are seekers of true information. It’s in our DNA. Take for example the fact that “the weather” is a very common conversational piece. Or, consider that most of us compulsively devour the latest breaking news. We just want to know things for the sake of knowing, even if those things don’e directly effect our daily lives. Website and blog editors are always interested in learning something new too. So go ahead, let them have it.
I'm not sure I want these to be the reasons people read my blog posts.

This site (sorry about the popup ad) has a general admission that all of the content he creates is for the purpose of link bait. He is selling a product, and I at least give him credit for the admission as such. He makes a good point - the reason to blog is so people read it. That's what we all want. I blog for a few reasons here. One is to practice my writing - which isn't a strength of mine, but I hope doing this on a semi-regular basis has helped. Another is to educate. Science is very important to me, which is why I was inspired to go back and advance my education to become a college instructor. Finally, it is to counter all of the bad information on the internet. If I can prevent even just a few people from making bad decisions based on bad information, I feel like I've done something good in the world. But would using catchy titles and pictures diminish traffic here long-term? I don't have good evidence either way, but it is a concern.

One other perspective I found interesting, but in a sense made my decision harder was from freelance writerMark Sherbin. He makes a case for why clickbait is poisonous:
Clickbait can be much more damaging to a brand than many of us realize. Misleading headlines destroy trust your other content has been steadily building for your organization.
But in building the case for why it is poisonous, he makes this statement:
Shallow content is a drain on resources that could be spent creating something truly valuable. In many cases, it attracts people outside of your audience, which accomplishes nothing in the grand scheme of your content marketing strategy.
I don't think the content here would be shallow, and if a catchy, even misleading headline brought in an audience from outside the normal skeptical community, wouldn't that be a good thing? That would seem to be part of our goal - to show how proper scientific skepticism is the path to progress.

For now, I am going to stick to titles that are not misleading. I am going to work a little harder at making them interesting and informative. One step will be to understand I don't have a space concern like a traditional newspaper, so making my titles longer is OK (a big hurdle for me). I am interested in what readers think about link bait-type titles and what it might do to encourage or discourage you from reading and linking to the site. Comment away!

by Eric Hall

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