Does An Estimated Time to Read on Blogs Actually Help? (3 min.)

3 min read

We’re admittedly a nerdy group here at SparkReaction. So nerdy, in fact, that we have passionate conversations about new inbound marketing strategies we notice other companies implementing.

One inbound trend we've spotted (and amicably debated) a lot recently? Blogs that include an “estimated time to read” at the top of the post. An estimated reading time is a guess at how long it'll take the average reader to get through the post, usually based on word count. (Most readers can get through 250 words per minute, so it should take you about 3 minutes to read this 750-word post.)

The more we saw these estimates, the more we wondered whether they made a difference. Some of us had pretty strong opinions against them, while others didn't see the harm. The two arguments:

The Case In Favor of Estimations

It's 9 p.m. and you're settling in to watch a movie—something with Leonardo DiCaprio, of course. As you're scrolling through Netflix, you know you won't be able to stay awake through 3+ hours of The Wolf of Wall Street. In comparison, little Leo's 2-hour performance in Romeo & Juliet feels like a piece of cake.

The same goes for blog content. Readers are quickly turned off by a text-filled page that'll take a good chunk of time to read. With 55% of readers spending fewer than 15 seconds on your site, marketers need all the help they can get to earn (and keep) visitors' attention. Seeing that a post takes only 3 minutes to read could convince visitors to power through the content. Consumers might appreciate knowing just how much of their time and attention we're asking for, and showing that it's only a few minutes could be the deciding factor.

On the other hand, if the post is on the lengthier side, the ETR serves as a heads-up—imagine launching into The Titanic not knowing it's over three hours of Kate and Leo. Knowing what you're getting yourself into is a relief.

The Case Against Estimations

A lot of people really, really hate estimated reading times. Critics say the number disrespects the reader and the writer: For the reader, it's condescending to think they have such a short attention span; for the writer, it minimizes hours of effort into a few short minutes. Estimations also could come off as desperate, as if the blog is saying, "Please? I only need 2 and a half minutes! Can't you spare a little time for me?" 

The other issue is that time spent engaging with content can't always be estimated with word count. Readers spend time digesting images, comments, social media, video and other multimedia that can't be assessed with a word-counting algorithm.

Our instinct? If the blog contains truly remarkable content that piques our interest, a longer or shorter reading time won't deter us from consuming the content. People didn't dismiss Inception or The Great Gatsby because the films hit the 3-hour mark—in fact, they loved them.

We don’t trust our instincts, though. We trust data. So that’s what we looked for.

The Numbers

Because ETR is a fairly new trend in business blogging, there isn't a ton of data to prove its worth. But we did find a few bloggers who pulled the numbers from their own experiments.

For example, web developer David Michael Ross saw a 13% decrease in bounce rate the day after implementing his time-to-read element. Granted, he didn't actually do an A/B test—he just noticed an overnight change. Similarly, after measuring 3,000 site visitors, web designer Brian Cray found ETRs improved time on site by 13.8% and boosted engagement by 66.7%, though it's not clear whether the growth is due to the estimations or other blogging tactics.

Clearly, early adopters have seen some success, but we're not necessarily convinced this data proves anything about reading estimates. More tests over a longer period of time might persuade us.

So, what’s the verdict? Should I use them?

What’s right for one blog isn’t right for others, so don’t jump the gun. Consider your ideal customers and readers when making this decision. For example, if your blog content is primarily visual—think infographics, videos and SlideShares—an estimated reading time won't be accurate or helpful. On the other hand, if your content varies between super-long and super-short, a estimation could benefit your readers.

If you decide to test it out, be sure to do some A/B testing to learn what's effective and what your readers like.

As for us? We like the data we're seeing, so we're going to test it out. We'll report back on the results—good or bad.