3 Reasons Why Clickbait Headlines Use Numbers

You can’t go on the internet without stumbling into “clickbait” — those annoying yet tantalizing articles that you aren’t looking for, but that are designed to entice you to click on a link and see, for example, how “unrecognizable” some ’80s TV star is now.

If you pay attention to clickbait (and of course you shouldn’t, but you can’t really help it, now can you?) you notice that there are definite patterns to it. The headlines for many of the clickbait pieces advertise something that is supposedly “shocking” or “jaw-dropping,” but a lot of them — say, 50 percent — also feature numbers.  As in “6 reasons why your retirement planning is doomed” or “7 signs revealing that your boss actually hates your guts.”  Today’s MSN website page, from which the above photo is taken, includes a bunch of sports-related clickbait, and numbers are prominent.

Obviously, the clickbait brigade thinks numbers are likely to lead to clicks.  Why?

The article “Why We Respond Emotionally to Numbers: 7 Ways to Use the Power of Numbers in Your Designs” — which itself has a clickbait-like title — argues that humans respond viscerally and subconsciously to numbers.  Even numbers, for example, are supposed to reflect feminine qualifies, while odd numbers are purportedly masculine.  Numbers also are associated with luck and with religion.  More basically, many games, especially those where you gamble, involve numbers.  Obviously, numbers must have a deep intuitive appeal for homo sapiens, even those who didn’t like math class.

In the case of clickbait, though, I think it is more than that.  People on the internet are typically in a hurry, and clickbait by definition is something that you’re not actually trying to find.  Numbers in the headlines signal clear limits on the amount of time you’re going to need to spend to check out that provocative clickbait.  Typically the number in the headline is below 10, encouraging you to think that even if the article is a colossal waste of time, at least you’ll figure that out quickly.  The fact that there are only 5 reasons to believe that the cast of Hogan’s Heroes was cursed might just tip the balance and cause you to move that mouse and cursor and click away.

 

Clickbait

It’s obvious that ad revenue on some free websites is tied to “clicks” — how many times people tap their mouse to access a story.  It’s one way for the website to account for its traffic and provide data to advertisers who want to know how many people are seeing their banners and pop-up ads.  Not surprisingly, many websites are set up to maximize clicks.  That’s why you often need to click “next page” to read an entire article, for example.

The most irritating aspect of the click-counting emphasis, however, are the articles that clearly are “clickbait.”  You’ve seen them featured on the websites you visit, cluttering things up like unsightly litter on the side of a highway:  where are members of the cast of an old TV show now, what “jaw-dropping” dresses got worn to a recent awards show, which celebrities have killed a person (number 8 will shock you!), what “weird trick” will allow you to immediately lose 20 pounds or secure your retirement, and on and on.  You’ve probably gotten to the point that you don’t even notice them anymore on the websites you visit.

What’s discouraging about the “clickbait” phenomenon, however, is that even more high-end internet content providers seem to be unable to resist publishing their own form of clickbait.  Those are articles that clearly are designed to stoke controversy and provoke criticism, in hopes that the articles will be linked and discussed on other websites.  They’ll gladly accept harsh bashings if a few more clicks come their way.

Even as august a publication as the New York Times isn’t immune from the lure of clickbait.  Recently the Times published an article called “27 Ways to Be a Modern Man” that can only be viewed as high-end clickbait.  It’s a silly piece that lists grossly implausible attributes of “modern men” — such as that they not only buy shoes for their wives, but will know their wife’s shoe size and which women’s shoe brands run large or small — and it’s gotten creamed all over the internet.  But I’m guessing that it’s been one of the biggest click-producers that the Times has published recently, and that will make the Times, and its advertisers, happy.  (I’m not going to link to it because the last thing I want to do is reward the publication of any more clickbait.)

It’s sad, really, to see publications like the Times stoop to the level of clickbait.  It makes me wonder what kind of long-term impact the internet is going to have on the quality of journalism in America.