Facebook is declaring war on clickbait headlines. "We’ve heard from people that they specifically want to see fewer stories with clickbait headlines or link titles," the social media giant said in a Thursday blog post. So Facebook is changing how its news feed works so that "people will see fewer clickbait stories and more of the stories they want to see higher up in their feeds."
This is likely to cause consternation among news sites, which rely on Facebook (and, in many cases, clickbait headlines) for a significant fraction of their traffic. The new system is going to be particularly nerve-wracking because Facebook plans to keep its rules for identifying clickbait a secret. So publishers will have a strong incentive to make their headlines a little bit clickable — but not so much that they attract the wrath of Facebook’s clickbait police.
But there’s a better way that Facebook could address this problem. Instead of suppressing stories with clickbait headlines, Facebook could simply rewrite the headlines. After all, there’s no law requiring the headline displayed in a Facebook post to be the same as the headline in the original article.
It would be a lot of work to rewrite every headline on the internet, of course. But Facebook wouldn’t have to do that. It could hire a small team and have them focus on the stories that are most widely shared and have the most egregious headlines. It could ask users to flag clickbait headlines for review by Facebook’s staff.
This approach has a couple of big advantages. For one thing, it’s a lot more transparent. Publishers wouldn’t have to wonder if their stories were silently being down-voted, and readers wouldn’t miss out on good stories that an overeager Facebook employee decided had a clickbait headline.
It would also be better at giving publishers feedback that would help them write better headlines. The strategy Facebook announced this week wouldn’t do that — publishers may not be able to tell which articles were downgraded, or why.
But if publishers saw the new headlines Facebook staffers write, they would get a better idea of which types of headlines Facebook considers out of bounds. Over time, they would get better at writing Facebook-friendly headlines, reducing the need for Facebook to fix them.
Facebook wouldn’t be the first news site to do this. The news aggregator Techmeme has been rewriting its headlines since 2013. Hacker News, a site popular in Silicon Valley, does this too. Facebook should learn the same lesson as these much smaller sites: The best way to provide your users with high-quality headlines is to write them yourself.