I think the first place I saw estimated reading times was on Medium. Anyone familiar with the platform will know that attached to every post is an indication about how long it’ll take you to read.
Medium calculates its estimated reading times (ERTs) by dividing the total word count of a post by the average reading speed (which they estimate to be around 245 words per minute).
The idea for this post stemmed more from my own curiosity than from anywhere else. If I’m completely honest, I personally quite like knowing how much time a post might take to read before jumping in.
But the point of this post isn’t for me to convince you either way.
I will ask this though:
Estimated reading times on blog posts… are they good, are they bad, or would you even miss them if they weren’t there?
To get a rough (and when I say rough, I mean ROUGH) idea about how folk feel towards them, I decided to run a a Twitter poll with the aim of prompting a bit of discussion.
Here’s the results of that poll:
Before I put my tuppence worth in about the results, let me just begin with a quick disclaimer;
The results of this poll are in no way fully representative of what all readers and writers think. These results should not be taken as gospel. The total number of people who voted was a whopping 64, and by a slim majority those who voted seemed to quite like ERTs being present on blog posts.
While putting immense decision-making powers into the hands of a fractional number of voters might be enough for the Conservative Party, I know that this poll doesn’t quite cut it in terms of fair representation of what everyone thinks. However, unless you’re planning on voting for the Estimated Reading Times Party, I don’t think the scale of these situations really compare.
That said, I’ll still take my lead from the Tories and carry on regardless what anyone thinks – because this post ain’t gonna write itself, and because a few interesting points were brought up by people in the copywriting community (about estimated reading times, that is).
While there wasn’t any resounding resistance against ERTs being on posts, almost as many people who claimed to be in favour of them said they were indifferent towards them. I think it’s worth recognising this.
It’s entirely possible that ERTs could increase engagement with shorter posts. If a potential reader knows before clicking that it won’t take much time out of their day, they may be more encouraged to read your post.
Coupled with a strong, KILLER headline that sparks their interest, and on a topic they’re already invested in, might make them more likely to click the link and read the post if there was any hesitation left.
Let’s also face some facts. We’ve all been in a position where we’ve clicked on a post and then scrolled to the bottom to see how much there is to read. If the reader is a bit short on time or not feeling up to reading a longer-form post, what’s the harm in telling them beforehand? They’ll either read the post, or they won’t.
Knowing the ERT in advance may also help readers decide if they want to read the post now or save it for later. This can be a good thing if the reader actually returns to read it when they do have the time, but of course, not so good if ‘reading it later’ means they don’t have the time immediately and then forget about the post completely.
With so many people on the poll claiming to be indifferent, it did get me wondering if readers actually pay attention to ERTs at all. A few people admitted that they don’t bother acknowledging the reading time and rather focus on the topic of the content.
It’s likely that an eye-catching headline, the topic, or the reputation of the writer are far more persuasive tools to turn a potential reader into a reader than any ERT ever could be.
ERTs are little more than a minor indication of how long a reader may have to expect their attention span to last for. Hence, why the engagement on shorter posts may benefit, and why longer posts will undoubtedly suffer. Let’s be honest, no one really wants to know that a blog post will take them 47 minutes to read.
While some people showed their indifference, no one on the poll explicitly commented a reason why they didn’t like them. I’ve deduced a few possible reasons why you may find yourself not so keen on reading times.
Firstly, basic ERT plugins often don’t take infographics, landing pages, product pages, embedded social media posts, or slideshows into account – so the accuracy of the time it will take to read the post, along with all of the relevant links, might be completely off.
There’s also the argument that putting an ERT on a post quantifies the value of the content based on time rather than on the quality of the writing and how the content benefits the reader.
This is dependent on the reader actually basing their decision to read a post on time vs nature and quality of content – and at the end of the day, that’s their prerogative.
I’ll conclude by saying that if you’re wondering if ERTs will encourage more people to read your posts – the answer is: they might.
You’ll see that I’ve adopted ERTs on my own blog posts. I understand that they may not suit everyone, and I can see both the pros and cons of them in certain circumstances.
If your aim is to increase reader engagement, there’s plenty more effective and easily measurable methods I’d recommend trying first. As a writer, it’s important not to take your reader’s time for granted. I would always argue that well constructed headlines, consistent quality content, answering the burning questions, and not wasting your reader’s time will help you best achieve that – not estimated reading times.
Let me just finish on a massive thank you for reading this #Write52 post. It has been awesome to have you here.
As well as that, Ed has been working to compile all of the #Write52 posts each week in a handy email newsletter – which you can sign up to here. Be sure to do that, and you won’t miss a trick.
If you want to join the Estimated Reading Time Party, too bad. It’s not real.