Clearing the cyber-clutter.

Facebook to tackle click-baiting.

Spammers beware. Facebook has its digital broom at the ready, poised to reduce the clutter of the respective news feeds of its 1.32 billion monthly active users, with the social network this week announcing it is cracking down on “click-bait” headlines. In doing so, Facebook is acting on user feedback by cleaning up stories that have been identified as feeling ‘spammy’. Facebook says it wants to help its users “find the posts and links from publishers that are most interesting and relevant”, and in aid of this will be making two updates; the first designed to reduce click-baiting headlines, and the second designed to help users see links shared on Facebook in the best format.

What is click-baiting and why is it a trend of concern for Facebook?

In the words of Facebook, click-baiting is “when a publisher posts a link with a headline that encourages people to click to see more, without telling them much information about what they will see”. Such posts tend to generate a lot of clicks, meaning they get shown to more people, and get shown higher up in news feeds. This concurrently has the potential to, over time, drown out and detract from friends’ content along with various other content users may have a genuine interest in.

Most regular Facebook users will recognise the sort of headline that pops up in news feeds, falling firmly under the banner of click-bait, generally looking like something along the lines of ‘You'll NEVER believe what happened at the Emmys after party last night … CLICK here to find out’. Limited information is offered, with the sole purpose being to encourage the user to follow the link to the full article. The click-bait formula is catchy and provocative, yet ultimately superficial, as content takes a back seat to sensationalism in the pursuit of website traffic.

This, of course, can be annoying for users, whom it appears have relayed their frustrations to Facebook  in their numbers. Indeed, when asked in a survey as to what type of content they would prefer to see in their news feeds, 80% of users told Facebook they prefer headlines that help them decide if they want to read the full article before clicking through.

How will Facebook determine if an article falls under the banner of click-bait?

Facebook states one method it will be employing will be to look at how long users spend reading an article away from Facebook. The rationale is if a user clicks on an article and then spends a deal of time reading it, it suggests they have clicked through to something valuable, while, conversely, if a user clicks on a link and then comes straight back to Facebook, it suggests that they didn’t find something they wanted.

The Facebook update will thus start taking into account whether users spend time away from Facebook after clicking a link, or whether they tend to come straight back to their news feed, which Facebook states, will ultimately have a bearing when it ranks stories with links in them.

Facebook states another factor it will be taking into account will be to look at the ratio of users clicking on the content compared to those discussing and sharing it with their friends, stating “if a lot of people click on the link, but relatively few people click 'Like' or comment on the story when they return to Facebook, this also suggests that people didn’t click through to something that was valuable to them”.

Finding the missing link: Facebook to discourage embedded links.

Facebook's second update relates to sharing links in posts, with the social network stating it has found that “people often prefer to click on links that are displayed in the link format (which appears when you paste a link while drafting a post), rather than links that are buried in photo captions”. As such, Facebook will prioritise showing links in the link format, and will show fewer links shared in captions or status updates.

The rationale behind this is giving users every opportunity to decide whether they want to click through to a link, with the link format showing additional information associated with the link, such as the beginning of the article. Facebook additionally notes this format will also make it easier for users to click through on smaller-screened mobile devices.

“The best way to share a link after these updates will be to use the link format,” Facebook states. “In our studies, these posts have received twice as many clicks compared to links embedded in photo captions. In general, we recommend that you use the story type that best fits the message that you want to tell – whether that’s a status, photo, link or video.”

So, what will be the impact of these changes?

Well, put shortly and simply, in the words of Facebook, those publishers who frequently post click-bait headlines, which users click on and then quickly exit, “may see their distribution decrease in the next few months”, meaning less traffic for click-bait headlines and less click-bait clutter in users' news feeds.

Of course, it is one thing clicking on a headline and another thing entirely spending time on a web page – user behaviour that Facebook is clearly conscious of. Clicking does not necessarily equate to reading, and the value of clicks as opposed to time spent on a web page as a measurement of user satisfaction will now be of greater concern for publishers using Facebook to generate website traffic.

Given the huge influence Facebook wields in driving traffic, publishers who currently rely on click-bait headlines to garner views and traffic may well need to re-examine their approach.

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