Eyeballs are the currency of the internet. The value of the content you consume is measured by the traffic it generates for the ads placed on that page. Those ads, in most cases, follow the pay-per-click (PPC) model.

And it’s really broken.

It’s been broken for a while.

Why We Create Clickbait

Understanding why clickbait pops up on your feed requires understanding how the creators make their money. Media outlets that rely on advertising revenue (as opposed to subscription services) generally use a pay-per-click model for online ads. 

(Data Source)

This model drives traffic to websites when an advertiers pays a publisher upon the click of an ad.  Most of them rely on ad networks (like Google ads). The advertisers bid on keyword phrases relevant to the target market. This is the same process that social media sites use for ads.

(Data Source)

When placed directly with a website, like a banner ad, they pay to be placed alongside certain content. Also, they may generate the ad based on keyword queries. You may notice these with the heading “sponsored links” or “sponsored ads.”

 Revenue from ads placed on digital platforms – counting all platforms, not just news sites – rose by 23% in 2018, and now makes up nearly half (49%) of all ad revenue in the U.S., according to eMarketer estimates. And when it comes to display ad revenue – a form of digital advertising that include banners, videos and other advertisements that news organizations and other websites typically run alongside their content – half of all digital revenue went to just two tech companies: Facebook (40%) and Google (12%). Overall digital ad revenue has tripled since 2011, the earliest year tracked, while digital display revenue has grown by almost five times over the same period.

Pew Research Center

For example, when you visit a news website (even a magazine or a blog), articles, videos, photos and other content are the main focus of the page. But all around that content, you’ll see ads. When you look at that ad, or rather land on a page where that ad is displayed, that is logged as an impression. When you actually click on the ad, going through to the content, that is counted as a click. 

It’s the same process when a website pops up in Search Engine results. If you see a link, or an adwords display, or a display ad, it counts as an impression. When you click, it’s a click. 

That is what the advertiser is paying for — a mixture of those impressions and clicks. 

It’s a little more complex with regard to viewing videos, listening to podcasts and other mediums. However, most of the advertising on the internet relies on this model.

The bulk of Google’s $110.8 billion revenue in 2017 came from its proprietary advertising service, Google AdWords

How Google Makes Money, Investopedia

When PPC was first developed in the 1990s, it revolutionized advertising because it democratized access. Anyone could advertise, even with a small amount of money. Also, advertisers didn’t need to know much about marketing. They just needed to let the algorithm do the work.

Cost-per-click ($) = Advertising cost ($) / Ads clicked (#)

In most cases, PPC ads aren’t placed directly by the companies displayed in the ads. They place them through an ad buying group or an ad distributor. And most of the time, the ad buying group pushes those to another party who manages placement. So, advertisers often aren’t aware of exactly which websites are hosting their ads. 

Anyone can place a small ad buy of $100 and find the listing pushed to dozens of sites.

Although advertisers can ask not to be placed on certain types of websites (like porn, drugs or terrorism). But, that relies on sites being properly identified as such. That’s the number one issue with the PPC model. Their algorithm struggles to keep up with corrupt websites, like clickbait, because their method of measurement is easily manipulated (with a mix of automated and human review) and favors sketchy content.

Back It Up

To back the process up to the next level, you need to think about how social media marketing and content marketing works. Again, the impressions and clicks matter here. 

For example, a social media post, linking to a news article will get views (impressions) and clicks. The amount of exposure and engagement is honed through a process called social media marketing. 

The average number of minutes per visit for digital-native news sites is down 16% since 2016, falling from nearly two and a half minutes to about two per visit. The decreases in website audience and time spent per visit come as Americans increasingly say they prefer social media as a pathway to news.

Pew Research Center

High engagement on a social media posts means more visibility (impressions) then, more clicks through to the website. And on that website, you have more opportunities to see (and click) more ads.

Traffic begets traffic.

Similarly, an result appearing (either paid or organically) in a search engine listing also gets a certain amount of views (impressions) or clicks. That exposure or engagement is generated through a process called content marketing (paid or organic). Content marketing relies on doing well in searches and being shared by people. Again more visibility (impressions) creates more opportunity for clicks. And once someone is reading the content, they see more ads (impressions) and generate more clicks.

Traffic begets traffic.

As you think about the variety of different formats for digital content, you’ll notice that the same process occurs. People see things and then they click on them. 

See content. Click on content.

See ad. Click on ad.

Since success is predominately measured by traffic, clickbait performs really well. Although search engines, like Google, say that their algorithm takes other factors into consideration but, it still seems to favor traffic above everything. Also, the whole PPC model relies on highest traffic leading to highest impressions and clicks.

How Pay Per Click Works

While all the different ad services (Google, Social Media Platforms, Retargeting Ad Services, Email Subscription Services, Etc.) offer a variety of metrics, almost everyone relies on the pay-per-click model. 

When an advertiser design a campaign, you start by picking a desired goal. So, on the advertiser’s website, there will be a landing page with some action that you want the page visitor to take. For the sake of our discussion, let’s assume it’s an online retailer with products to sell. So, the landing page would be a product listing.

To reach that product listing, someone must click on an ad. In this case, the ad will appear on a news website alongside an article targeted to an audience that should be interested in the product.

That’s essentially a backwards path of a conversion funnel — the backbone of digital marketing.

The Conversion Funnel

From the beginning, the conversion funnel pushes people toward an action (i.e. a conversion). This takes place on the landing page and it’s the whole point of a digital campaign. 

So, a user sees an ad.

They click on an ad.

That brings them to a landing page.

Where they then, convert. 

Success Metrics

When an advertiser puts together a campaign, they start to notice interesting things happening. A lot of people may see the ad but, they won’t click. That’s the ratio of impressions to clicks.

A lot of people may click on the ad but, they won’t convert. That’s the ratio of conversion.

And some people will click on the ad and leave the landing page immediately.

There are several reasons for this.

If someone sees an ad but doesn’t click, there could be several problems, including:

  • Weak creative or message
  • A website glitch
  • Incorrect audience

Similarly, if someone clicks to a landing page and leaves quickly or doesn’t convert, the page could have several problems, including:

  • Weak content
  • A website glitch
  • Incorrect audience

Pay-per-click models put all of the initiative on the advertiser to uncover this. So, essentially, the advertiser must monkey with the ad content, landing page content, and keywords determining ad placement until they get the results they desire. That’s created an industry full of middle-men experts who try to create visibility into the process through software, tracking and testing.

While some ad groups offer support in developing and placing a PPC campaign, the emphasis is still on the impressions and clicks.

However, advertisers should really care most about conversions. Did they buy? Did they submit a lead? Did they fill out a form? Did they subscribe?

But, the system is built around delivering clicks and that is how advertisers are charged. It’s kind of archaic.

While other, more nuanced, services exist and provide great value, most advertisers are paying for clicks. As someone in marketing, I find that awareness for PPC is really high (with clients even doing it for themselves before contacting me) but, other methods (native advertising, social media marketing, inbound marketing, influencer sponsorships or fixed-rate advertising) are less well-known.

Impressions and Clicks

Source: https://www.journalism.org/2016/05/05/long-form-reading-shows-signs-of-life-in-our-mobile-news-world/

This focus on impressions and clicks also extends to content marketing. Clicks and impressions seen as the key metric for a website, especially with unsophisticated advertisers. They just want to know how many people saw an article or post and the demographics of the user. So, when people try to monetize content (in any format), they put an emphasis on website traffic. 

Essentially, they push how many clicks they get. 

Over time, this focus on clicks and traffic has created an information landscape where clickbait thrives.

Click-bait relies on:

  • Catchy or scandalous headlines 
  • Eye-grabbing media 
  • Easy to produce content

Honest content creators know better. They know that time time people spend on a page raises the number of ads seen, raising the audience’s consideration and likeihood of actually converting on the advertiser’s landing page. However, it’s hard to sell that nuanced approach against the ease and cheapness of PPC.

How to Kill Clickbait

Killing clickbait starts with disincentivizing the content creators. Advertisers, content creators, and consumers can all change their behavior to improve the ecosystem of information online.

In fact, many are already starting to push back on the pay-per-click model because it doesn’t always deliver value. That’s why Google offers conversion tracking and attribution models now. That’s why retargeting and geotagging campaigns are starting to offer more insight into audience behavior. However, these aren’t as widely known or understood outside of the marketing industry.

A lot of advertisers just plug-and-play — putting their money with crappy websites that don’t deliver a return on investment (ROI).


  • Should carefully consider the placement of their ads. By taking a hands-on approach to where their ads are displayed, they can make sure that they don’t advertise alongside sketchy content. This means forcing the third party companies to be more transparent about their process.
  • Must demand better reporting and transparency from their ad placements to ensure they are reaching their ideal audience and getting the best value. Ideally, conversions should outweigh clicks.

Content Creators

  • Must communicate the value of other success metrics besides website traffic and clicks.
  • Should hold themselves accountable for the quality of information they provide.
  • Do their best to create engaging content while balancing that against their responsibility to accuracy.


  • Must push back on advertisers that cooperate with unscrupulous websites. Make them aware of their ad placement by questioning them directly. Boycott them, if necessary.
  • Should attempt to curtail their own impulse to boost clickbait. Try not to click. If you do click, report the ad that led you there (if possible.)
  • Educate themselves on the worst clickbait websites, including those that generate fake news.


Killing clickbait starts with disincentivizing the fake news creators. Advertisers, content creators and consumers can all change their behavior to improve the ecosystem of information online. In fact, many are already starting to push back on the pay-per-click model because it doesn’t always deliver value.

Sure, the landing page gets traffic. But, the real value is in the conversions.

Advertising models that focus on quality lead generation rely on quality, useful content — the opposite of clickbait. This process works directly quality content creators or hosts content directly on their own site.

Advertisers must buy ads directly with…

  1. Reputable Publishers
  2. Reputable bloggers and social media influencers
  3. Ethical Ad Groups that offer transparent reporting
  4. or host their own valuable content on their own channels.

And demand to pay for conversions, not clicks.

This puts pressure on the middle men and cuts out all those clickbait generators, leading to…

  1. Higher Conversion Rate
  2. Correct Audience
  3. Longer On-Page Time
  4. Better Brand Affiliations

While it does require more time and management than plug-and-play PPC, it delivers a higher value, especially over the long term of the brand.

The end result?

No one is unwittingly financing clickbait.

It’s time we all start asking for more.

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