"The way that we think of journalism is very tied to print. We were raising money before there was a Web. We were born during a print revolution where what we know from the Web is immediacy and speed. So we were really caught off guard by how quickly it evolved and how much it changed. A great piece of information that I love reads, 'Spies reportedly asked Google to help them hack Apple's computers,'" says Daniel Gross, CEO of startup Wordflow.

His company sells advertising for hyper-local websites that then appear on social media. After the Wall Street Journal helped the company find its first client, Mr. Gross and his business partner came up with an idea: An AI-powered tool that could automatically recognize and remove "clickbait" headlines and retarget their viewers as high-quality stories based on their geographic location.

Several startups are trying to cut through the noise on social media and today's SEO-focused news media by using algorithms to help users weed out the awful from the good. Four developments since the 2010 launch of the term "clickbait" foreshadow today's success.