What are Clickbait ads?

December 10th · 11 min read

Rotem Tal - Senior Cybersecurity Expert |Writer & Editor|
Rotem Tal - Senior Cybersecurity Expert |Writer & Editor|

Clickbait advertising is a form of “bait and switch” advertising designed to lure users into clicking on a link and read, view, or listen to content by providing an attractive but misleading headline.

These false headlines often result in the spread of outrageous or inaccurate information on social media. But why would anyone want to write a deceptive headline (enter sarcasm)? Well, why would anyone want to do anything? As always, the answer is pretty clear. Money!

Clickbait is commonly used by marketers to drive page views on websites in order to increase online ad revenue. But get this - scammers have caught on to this trend and are using clickbaity titles for their malicious purposes. They’ll use a clickbaity title in order to lure people into clicking a link which will then take them to a fake website or download a dangerous link. They might even use the clickbaity headline as a launching pad for phishing attacks. Shocking right!?

| Ad fraud is projected to cost over $100 billion in 2023

But have no fear - in this article, we’ll get into what clickbait is, how it started, and obviously give you the safety goggles you need to differentiate between clickbait and real ads. More importantly, we’ll explain how security software like Guardio can block these clickbait ads for good. Let’s rock and roll!

<native-ad id='ad_install' href='https://guard.io/lp' btn_label='Add Guardio to Browser' btn_label_mobile='Start Free Scan' title='Don't let curiosity compromise your safety''> Each innocent click might be opening a door to cyber thieves waiting to plunder your personal information.

History of clickbait: How it evolved over time

While the term "clickbait" is specific to online content and the act of enticing clicks, the concept of using exaggerated content to capture readers' attention has a long history in various forms of media. In the early 20th century, newspapers and magazines used sensational headlines and exaggerated stories to attract readers and sell more copies. The stories often featured attention-grabbing headlines, dramatic imagery, and sometimes even fabricated or exaggerated content.

However, before the internet (yes, life existed before the World Wide Web), it was often described using more general terms like "sensationalism," "yellow journalism," or "tabloid journalism," depending on the context. A classic example of offline clickbait was the use of provocative and attention-grabbing headlines in supermarket tabloids. The tabloids would prominently display headlines like "Alien Baby Found in Texas!" or "Elvis Spotted at Local Diner!" to pique the curiosity of shoppers waiting at the checkout line. Who could resist picking up a magazine to read the bizarre stories promised on the covers? I know I couldn’t.

Then came the internet, which basically took these ridiculous headline promises and put them on steroids. In the early days of the web, clickbait primarily consisted of sensationalized headlines and misleading advertisements designed to entice user clicks - on links. These links often led to low-quality content or, in some cases, outright scams.

As the internet matured, so did clickbait. With the rise of social media and content aggregation websites, the focus shifted to creating eye-catching thumbnails and headlines to grab users' attention as they scrolled through their feeds. Websites like Upworthy and BuzzFeed became pioneers in the art of crafting clickable headlines and shareable content. They used emotional triggers, curiosity gaps, and listicles to draw in readers and keep them engaged. I mean, who doesn’t love a “38 Of The Most Embarrassing Coachella Celeb Looks” - Who could resist that? How about this one →

25 Ways To Tell You’re A Kid Of The ‘90s

Fresh Prince of Bel Air

As the internet became the dominant medium for information and entertainment, clickbait evolved into various forms, including online articles, videos, and social media content. While clickbait has progressed, it remains a controversial and often criticized practice. Many people find it frustrating and deceptive as they click on enticing links only to be disappointed by the actual content. Online platforms and content creators continue to grapple with finding a balance between attracting viewers and providing valuable, honest content.

Types of clickbait ads

Clickbait ads come in various forms, and they are designed to pique your curiosity and entice you to click. While some are relatively harmless and merely aim to drive traffic to a website or promote content, others can be more deceptive and potentially lead to scams or misinformation.

While not all clickbait ads are for scam purposes, most of the time, they’re not 100% honest. During the 2016 United States Presidential Election, for example, one company generated $40,000/month using clickbait ads sharing outrageous and false claims about the presidential candidates, and another admitted to generating upwards of $2,000/day using the same tactics. Yowza.

Different kinds of clickbait ads:

Sensational headlines: These clickbait ads rely on sensational or exaggerated headlines to grab your attention. They often promise shocking revelations, unbelievable stories, or miraculous solutions to common problems. For example, you might see headlines like "You Won't Believe What Happens Next" or "This One Weird Trick Will Change Your Life."

False promises: Clickbait ads in this category make bold promises they can't deliver. They might claim to offer free products, exclusive deals, or life-changing opportunities. For instance, "Get a Free iPhone X in 5 Seconds" or "Make $1,000 a Day Working from Home" are classic examples.

Misleading thumbnails: On platforms like YouTube, TikTok, and Instagram to name a few, misleading thumbnails are a common form of clickbait. Creators use attention-grabbing images that may not accurately represent the video's content. Viewers click expecting one thing and often find something entirely different.

shutterstock 1470571964

Fake celebrity endorsements: Some clickbait ads impersonate celebrities or well-known figures, using their names and images to promote products and services. These fraudulent endorsements attempt to gain credibility by association.

Controversial content: Clickbait ads that employ controversial or polarizing topics aim to spark debates and discussions. They often use emotionally charged language and imagery to provoke reactions from users.

Fake news and conspiracy theories: In the age of social media, clickbait ads have also been linked to the spread of fake news and conspiracy theories. They exploit people's curiosity and desire for shocking revelations to disseminate false information.

Fear-based tactics: Clickbait ads that rely on fear often warn of impending dangers or hidden threats. They aim to create a sense of urgency and encourage user clicks for more information. Phrases like "Don't Be a Victim - Click Now" or "What You Don't Know Can Hurt You".

Survey scams: Some clickbait ads pose as surveys or questionnaires, promising rewards upon completion. However, these are often tactics to collect personal information or lead users into subscribing to unwanted services.

Free downloads: Clickbait ads offering free downloads of software, media, or content often conceal hidden fees, malware, or other unwanted consequences. You may think you're getting something for nothing, only to encounter problems later on.

Since there are so many headlines designed to trick you into clicking, it's important to know what's true and what's not and to be careful of outright scams. Ads that are misleading or deceptive can lead to wasted time, financial loss, or exposure to malware and scams.

Clickbait ads Source: BBC

To click, or not to click? Recognizing clickbait ads

Like it or not, clickbait ads have become an omnipresent part of our online experience. While wasting time on ads or articles that don’t deliver what they promised is annoying, the real problem is that clickbait ads have opened the door to scammers, who increasingly take out search advertisements to distribute malware. But with a keen eye and a few key strategies, you can become a pro at recognizing clickbait and protecting yourself from their deceptive tactics. Here are some valuable tips and tricks to help you spot clickbait ads:

Check the headline: The headline is often the first indicator of clickbait. Be wary of sensationalized or overly dramatic language. Clickbait headlines tend to make exaggerated claims, use excessive punctuation, or promise UNBELIEVABLE RESULTS!!!

Examine the URL: Take a close look at the website's URL (address) before clicking. Clickbait often leads to unfamiliar or suspicious domains. If the URL looks unusual or doesn't match the content you expect, it's best to steer clear.

Look for typos and grammatical errors: Clickbait ads are notorious for poor grammar and spelling mistakes. Legitimate sources usually proofread their content. If you notice multiple errors in the headline or description, it's a red flag.

Evaluate the image: Clickbait ads often feature eye-catching or provocative images. These visuals are designed to pique your curiosity or elicit an emotional response. Reverse image searches can help you identify stock photos commonly used in clickbait.

Consider the source: Check the credibility of the website or source. Established news organizations, reputable blogs, and official government websites are typically trustworthy. Be cautious of obscure or unfamiliar sources.

Question everything: Analyze the content's claims critically. If it promises miraculous results, instant wealth, or extraordinary benefits with little effort, it's likely clickbait. Legitimate content tends to provide balanced and realistic information.

Watch out for emotional manipulation: Similar to social engineering, clickbait often relies on emotional triggers. If the ad attempts to generate fear, anger, or shock, it's a tactic to encourage clicks. Pause and consider whether the content is attempting to manipulate your emotions.

Check for the "too good to be true" factor: If an ad seems too good to be true, it probably is. Clickbait frequently advertises unbelievable offers or exclusive deals to lure users. Be skeptical of anything that sounds exceptionally advantageous.

Avoid clicking on "curiosity gap" headlines: Clickbait often uses "curiosity gap" headlines which is the psychological feeling of wanting to know more. Or, in other words, headlines that leave out critical information, enticing you to click to find out more, aka fear of missing out (FOMO). Instead of taking the bait, rely on reputable sources for comprehensive information.

Use browser protection: Consider using browser extensions that can block clickbait and help identify fake or fraudulent websites. Guardio for example, is an online browser extension and mobile app that can warn you when you're about to visit a known clickbait website or when a link appears suspicious. Guardio also works 24/7 in the background, monitors suspicious activity, and blocks hackers from stealing your data. It comes with a 7-day trial, and you get a free system scan that will tell you if your data has ever been leaked. With Guardio on your side, you can surf the web with peace of mind, knowing you’re always protected.

One click, multiple threats!

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Trust your instincts: If something feels off or too good to be true, trust your instincts and resist the urge to click. It's better to err on the side of caution than risk falling victim to clickbait scam.

Dangers of clickbait ads

Clickbait ads, with their enticing headlines and captivating visuals, might seem harmless at first glance. However, beneath their alluring exterior lies a world of potential dangers, including scams and the dissemination of misleading information. Here are some of the risks associated with clickbait ads:

Financial scams: A lot of clickbait ads promise quick riches, free products, or easy ways to make money online. The ads often lead to scammy websites or encourage you to share personal and financial information via phishing attacks, putting you at risk of identity theft, financial fraud, or unauthorized charges on your credit cards.

Malware distribution: Some clickbait ads are gateways to malware-infested websites. Clicking on the ads or navigating to the linked sites can lead to the unwanted installation of malicious software on your device. This malware can spy on your activities, steal personal data, or cause system damage.

False product claims: Exaggerated claims about the advantages of products and services can be misleading. They might lure you into purchasing subpar or ineffective goods, leading to frustration, disappointment, and financial losses.

Spread of misinformation: Clickbait ads often spread false information or conspiracy theories. This can contribute to misinformation, leading to public confusion, misguided beliefs, and mistrust in credible sources.

Privacy violations: Some clickbait ads, especially those disguised as surveys or contests, collect personal information without consent. This data can be sold to third parties, and used for targeted advertising, infringing on users' privacy. The data can also be used by scammers to steal your passwords, credit card information, and even your identity.

Wasted time: Users who fall for misleading headlines may find themselves on websites filled with irrelevant or low-quality content, wasting precious time that could be better spent elsewhere.

Legitimacy concerns: The widespread use of clickbait ads has contributed to a loss of trust in online content. People have become skeptical of headlines and content, even when it comes from legitimate sources, which can undermine the spread of accurate and valuable information.

Misleading engagement: Clickbait ads often generate high click-through rates due to their enticing nature. This artificially inflates engagement metrics, making it difficult for advertisers, content creators, and platforms to assess the genuine interest and needs of their audience.

The bottom line

With enticing headlines and visuals designed to capture our attention, clickbait advertising has undoubtedly become a ubiquitous part of our online experience. While not all clickbait ads are malicious, they have opened the door for scams and shady practices that pose significant risks. Financial scams, malware distribution, false product claims, the spread of misinformation, and legitimacy concerns, are just some of the dangers associated with clickbait ads.

Recognizing these risks, scrutinizing headlines, and being aware of emotional manipulation tactics, can keep you safe from falling victim to clickbait scams. Additionally, using security software like Guardio can provide an extra layer of protection against clickbait and other online threats. With the line between fact and fiction blurring, every headline competing for your attention, staying informed is crucial to navigating the digital landscape safely and responsibly.

Any click could compromise your security.

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