Facebook eliminating clickbait headlines is a purely business move

You may have heard about Facebook’s attempts to eliminate / remove ‘click bait,’ or, essentially, articles that kind of tease you into clicking on them — bait you, in other words — with a controversial or attention-seeking headline or photo, then fail to deliver on the promise. In essence, it’s a situation where the entry point to an article — the photo associated with it, the headline, the description — way oversells what you’ll actually get when you get there. Google has been making moves to eliminate click-bait — and to reduce other SEO gaming techniques — for years, and now Facebook — Google’s pre-eminent rival, in some ways — is on the same train.

The thing you need to remember here, though, is that Facebook is now (has been for a while) a publicly-traded company and, as such, most of its decisions need to be business-facing.

This is another example.

Consider how Slate explained the move, for example:

Second, if people really liked clickbait headlines, Facebook probably would keep showing them to us. Facebook isn’t waging war on clickbait out of some paternalistic sense of responsibility. It’s doing it because Facebook’s own users have explicitly told Facebook in surveys that they don’t like clickbait. Yes, they may succumb to teaser headlines, but they usually end up feeling cheated and annoyed. That feeling, in turn, makes them less likely to spend time on Facebook in the long run. And that is the worst thing that could happen to Facebook’s business.

This is all an interesting portion of a bigger picture. Social media may be approaching a tipping point. Here’s a personal example around me: I used to check Facebook literally all the time, and I mean to the point that it infuriated my girlfriend (now wife). In the last 10-12 months, I’ve checked it maybe once, twice a day if that. Some entire weekends I go without looking at it once. Why? There are a couple of reasons:

  • Ads seem to be everywhere
  • Videos seem to be everywhere
  • Their algorithms don’t even seem to completely work, because I get news on people I haven’t spoken to or thought of in six years
  • A lot of random, boring stuff near the top of the News Feed

As this started to happen more and more, it seemed to me that it was kind of emblematic of the tipping point going on here. Consider: when Facebook was still everyone’s darling pre-IPO (it’s still a darling, but in a different context), it could focus mostly on building relationships with its user base. Once it became a public company, though, the pressures mounted; when the pressures mounted and the focus became on money and quarterly results, more decisions became business decisions.

Here’s the thing: the decisions that organically allow a site to become a fun place where your friends share info are different from the decisions that you make when investors want to see value back.

Twitter got less cool for a while after its own IPO, rebounded with a strong World Cup, and now can sometimes feel the same way again — very corporate. I search for news on James Foley’s execution and I get three RadioShack sponsored ads before any real content tweeted out. That’s terrible. But at the same time, it’s something they have to do.

The point, after all, is to make money.

If you think that the click-bait removal is just about experience, it’s not. It’s about experience ultimately being tied to bottom line.

The ultimate concern here, besides the experience of being on Facebook eventually feeling less authentic, is that as Facebook adjusts its algorithms to do stuff like this — remove click-bait, for example — it might open itself up to other ways of people trying to exploit their system. After all, there’s 1 billion+ people on there. Marketers and advertisers are going to rush in to that space — oftentimes without a strategy, honestly — for as long as those numbers are there.

That’s where you’re going to see if Facebook really is the new Google — can it keep evolving to keep the experience of being on the site as pure as possible, or will it fall prey to a swarm of tricks from marketers/advertisers/developers/content producers/et al?

Ted Bauer