Click Hacking for Fun and Profit

by Jesse Farmer on Friday, April 22, 2011

A friend IMed me the other day, asking, "You know how to make people click on things. I'm submitting something to Reddit — can you help me title the post?" A stark description of my skills, certainly, but it made me laugh and inspired me to write an article about the art of click hacking.

What is click hacking?

Aside from being a term I just made up, click hacking is a type of social engineering where the goal is to get someone to click a hyperlink.

The link could be the title of a Reddit post, a button on a landing page form that's trying to capture your email, or an image in a Facebook ad. Deception can be, but is not necessarily involved.

I'm going to use Facebook, Hacker News, and Reddit as the primary examples throughout this article because I know them best. If you have other examples please leave a comment!

For Good or Evil

All the tactics I'm about to describe can be used for good or evil, and I've seen each used for both. Don't take this article as an endorsement for spamming, scamming, or other internet trickery.

There's plenty of grey area, too. At its start Reddit faked on-site activity to avoid looking like a ghost town. Was that unethical? A mistake?

None of these tactics are a substitute for generating real value for your customer, though they will help you understand how your customers react to what you present them (and how to incentivize them to react the way you want). The hard (and most important) parts are still up to you.

With that disclaimer aside, let's dive into specifics.

Understand Your Audience

Above all else, I take the time to understand my audience. Each online community has its own customs, norms, and standards of behavior. You have to understand them before you can blend in or stand out as necessary.

For example, Hacker News values civilitySee, e.g., Some Tips to Improve the Civility on Hacker News., straight-dealing, and intellectual honesty, but can be a little short-sighted and dour. Reddit values wit (especially puns and in-jokes/memes) and has a strong sense of community justice. It can also be completely juvenile.

From the click hacker's perspective, a pun-filled title could do well on Reddit, but would never see the light of day on Hacker News.

Ask for Help or Feedback

One way to get people to pay attention is to ask for help. Hacker News has a "Ask HN" feature which evolved purely from community behavior. There are similar "Tell HN" and "Review my Startup" features.

For example, here is Drew Houston's original Hacker News post asking for reviews of Dropbox. Every startup I know wants to publish a "showoff" entry on Hacker News and have it get to the front page, and their motives range from honest (they really want feedback) to self-serving (they just want the attention).

Give a Gift

Everyone loves gifts, but when we receive them we also feel pressure to reciprocate. The click hacker can use that pressure to get people to do what they want.

This tactic is the difference between "I baked a cake" and "I baked a cake for you." A normal person is obliged to accept and even reciprocate.

For example, this Reddit user wrote a CSS hack to change the appearance of the site — a little present for anyone using Reddit. The Reddit community reciprocated by giving him upvotes.

Notice how he says he made it "for Reddit."

The cake example works, too, though. :)


Bribery is the opposite of gift-giving. In this situation the click hacker says, "Do this for me and I'll give you something." If that something is really awesome people will do almost anything.

The stereotypical example here are those scammy ads for free iPods and the like. All you have to do is fill out this form and click this link and you'll be entered to win. Or, hey, instead maybe you can forward this offer to three of your friends, and if one of them wins, you win, too!

This can be done well in certain contexts. For example, Facebook game developers often trade installs by paying players virtual currency, e.g., "Install this game to earn ten farm dollars." Or a game developer might have a special landing page offering players virtual currency as a way to encourage the player to click the install button.

The player gets what they want (virtual currency) and the game developer acquired a customer for free.

Assuming the terms are clearly outlined there's nothing wrong with this. Of course, there's plenty of room for outright dishonesty by promising goods that never arrive. Don't be that guy.


People want what they can't have. Or, more accurately, people want what they think they can't have.

Gilt, for example, relies heavily on this tactic to drive sales. Better click that buy button now, because we're running out!

In Gilt's case the scarcity is legitimate, but it can be artificial, too. A game developer might make an in-game object ultra-rare in order to drive specific behavior. Limited beta invites are a tried-and-true method of generating traffic and interest; give out 20 invites to an audience of 20,000 and collect follow-up information for the people who don't get there in time.

Scarcity also works with time, e.g., "If you install this game within the next thirty seconds, you'll get a ten credit bonus." Tick, tick, tick, tock.

Social Proof

Similar to scarcity, people don't want to feel like they're missing out. If they see other people doing something, especially people they know or respect, they'll be more likely to do it.

This is the raison d'être for Facebook's Facepile widget. Click that Like button. You know you want to. Come on, all your friends are doing it.

Even adding faces of random but friendly-looking people can be effective in getting people to click through. Here's a screenshot of's homepage. homepage

Look at all those happy people. Don't you want to be happy, too?

Pick a Fight

Rather than trying to blend in with a community, some times it helps to generate controversy. This can either be you vs. the community, or setting two factions within a community against each other.

I'll share a story myself. Back in 2009 I was working on a polling application for Facebook. People would vote in polls and their vote would appear in their newsfeed.

The most controversial topics were the most successful, so to get things started I created a poll: "Do you support same-sex marriage?"

This was just after the Proposition 8 fight, so I decided to run two sets of ads on Facebook: one targeting 50 miles around San Francisco and another targeting 50 miles around Salt Lake City.

I can't say it was a win for civil political discourse, but it generated enough controversy to make that poll viral and in turn make the entire application viral.The way that application died makes a good story, too.

Environmental Flaws

Sometimes the environment has flaws which allow the click hacker to do some interesting things.

When Facebook first launched their user-generated polling product, I remember seeing several polls asking questions like, "Which model is hotter?" The possible answers were URLs of images.

Unfortunately for the user, clicking on the text of the answer (the URL in this case) would register a vote and post that vote to your newsfeed. Their friends, who of course also wanted to see pictures of hot models, clicked the URLs, accidentally voted, and spread the poll to their friends. Oops!

Click hackers were using this mis-feature deliberately to spread new polls across Facebook.There's a blog post describing data from this social hack — if anyone has it please share it in the comments!

I don't think many people will disagree when I say that most of the growth on the Facebook Platform from 2007-2009 was built on similar environmental flaws. Here's a two-year old example from Slide's Super Pocus:

What else?

What else am I missing? Post examples in the comments.

Have you ever been "tricked" into clicking something? (I know I have.) Have a funny story? Have experience optimizing landing pages, etc. and think about this all the time anyway? Leave a comment and share!

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