Facebook's Click-Bait Clampdown Won't Kill Viral Websites

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Facebook said yesterday that it's cracking down on click-bait, those stories whose headlines promise readers more than the links deliver. The tactic has helped propel the success of viral sites like Upworthy and Distractify, which will no longer get as much exposure on the social network for headlines like "What Happens to Your Face When You Wear Sunscreen Might Shock You."

Yet it's too soon to predict click-bait's demise. Facebook in the past has tweaked its news feed to change what people see -- in August and December 2013, the company said it would focus on "high-quality content," and in April said it was clamping down on posts that solicited users' likes and comments to boost their prominence in the feed. While some of the websites were punished with smaller exposure, for many of them, traffic still grew.

Distractify.com's audience has risen 76 percent since December, to 17.4 million, according to ComScore. Elite Daily, which publishes stories such as "The Truth Behind Why Love Only Finds You When You Stop Looking," saw traffic increase 34 percent to 21.1 million monthly visitors in July from 15.8 million in December. Today, the company received the millionth like on its Facebook page, according to Chief Executive Officer David Arabov.

"We believe that Facebook's recent optimization of its news feed algorithm is a change that will help publishers like Elite Daily," Arabov said in an e-mailed statement. "We are confident in our content and that our readers will continue to find the most interesting and relevant things that they actually care about and want to share from us."

Detecting Click-Bait

Facebook said its updated approach seeks to filter out stories that users deem "spammy," which can overwhelm content from friends and pages that people care about and want to see. The social network detects click-bait based on how long people spend reading an article after leaving the news feed. If they spend some time reading it, instead of clicking right back to the feed, it means they found something valuable.

As long as that's the standard, Upworthy isn't worried, according to an e-mail from Michele Clarke, a spokeswoman. On average, the company says its posts get 300,000 "attention minutes," and in the first half of 2014, each one generated 25,000 likes, shares and comments.

"We welcome the focus from Facebook on engaged time," Upworthy said.

Still, not everyone's doing better. Upworthy and ViralNova have seen steep declines this year, even with content similar to Elite Daily and Distractify. It's not clear whether that's because of a Facebook algorithm change, the appeal of the headlines and stories themselves, or some other variable.

ViralNova and Distractify didn't respond to e-mailed requests for comment. Vanessa Chan, a Facebook spokeswoman, declined to comment on the news feed changes.

Catching Attention

Facebook has actually trained publishers to think about headlining content with attention-catching phrases, explaining how to get readers to click in a "best practices" post on the site last year. The company praised Upworthy for testing multiple headlines to see which worked best on the site, and gave an example of the kind that works: "A Brave Fan Asks Patrick Stewart A Question He Doesn't Usually Get and Is Given a Beautiful Answer."

In the post yesterday, Facebook seemed to reverse that stance, defining click-baiting as "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." Kind of like that Patrick Stewart teaser.

While Facebook figures out how to define what should and shouldn't appear on its site, the viral content sites are betting that people will keep clicking on what they want to read, even if it's "34 Times Baby Sloths Reached Historic Levels of Cuteness." Maybe especially if it's "34 Times Baby Sloths Reached Historic Levels of Cuteness."

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