Estimated Time To Read This Post – Eternity

While browsing the web, I’ve noticed some sites providing an estimated reading time for articles. Some are as low as one minute while others are over ten. I think the idea of providing an estimated reading time is ridiculous. However, as I researched the technique, some people have reported an increase in the amount of time visitors stay on their site. For instance, Brian Cray reported an increase of 13.8% of time spent on site. He also noted an increase of followers, and social interactions.

Estimated Reading Times On Slate.com
Estimated Reading Times On Slate.com

It’s All Psychological

In December of 2013, The New Yorker ran a piece by Maria Konnikova about why our brains love lists. Within the article, research by psychologists Claude Messner and Michaela Wänke indicated that the faster we decide on something, the better we feel.

In 2011, the psychologists Claude Messner and Michaela Wänke investigated what, if anything, could alleviate the so-called “paradox of choice”—the phenomenon that the more information and options we have, the worse we feel. They concluded that we feel better when the amount of conscious work we have to do in order to process something is reduced; the faster we decide on something, whether it’s what we’re going to eat or what we’re going to read, the happier we become.

By showing an estimated reading time, it gives readers the information needed to make a quick decision on whether to commit to reading an article or not. I don’t know about you, but it never takes me the estimated amount of time to read a post. I’m always distracted by something whether it’s from internal or external forces.

The Average Reading Speed Is 200-250 Words Per Minute

The figure most commonly cited as a reading speed for an adult is an average of 200-250 words per minute. I’ve taken a few tests, including this one and my reading level is average. (Add yours in the comments.) But how can one estimate be used as a blanket average for everyone? Emmanuel Goossaert makes a lot of great points on all of the various facets that are involved with improving reading speed and comprehension.

My main concern with the reading speed is not the way it’s being measured, but simply that it is misleading. People want to read faster because they associate intelligence with reading speed, and most want to feel and appear to be smart. Who wouldn’t want to read books “Will Hunting” style? We are missing the point, because reading is not about being fast, it is about remembering what we have read. I would happily spend twice as long reading any book if I knew there was a guarantee for its content to be committed permanently to my memory.

Goossaert goes on to explain ways to improve the estimated reading times across the web.

Showing An Estimated Reading Time Is A Double-Edged Sword

When Slate.com introduced ERT’s to content in 2013, it was met with a strong sarcastic response, including this article by The Guardian. For a comedic response, view this quick video of Stephen Colbert poking fun at the feature.

 

On the one hand, readers get the opportunity to decide if they have the time needed to digest a particular piece of content. On the other, authors are faced with the reality check of seeing a reading time of five minutes or less for an article they may have spent a few hours on. Or, readers become insulted by the display and wonder why the author thinks it’s necessary to subliminally tell them “Hey, I know you’re busy, but this will only take a few minutes of your time”.

WordPress Plugins That Fill The Role

If you want to display an estimated reading time for posts on your site, here are a few WordPress plugins that do the job.

Estimated Reading Time – This is the first search result in the plugin directory for Estimated Reading Time plugins. Although it hasn’t been updated in two years, it still works. However, I’m not a fan of the way it presents the estimated times. It bases the time between 150-250 words per minute which you can change within the code.

The Output Of The Estimated Reading Time Plugin
The Output Of The Estimated Reading Time Plugin

Guerrillia’s Estimated Reading Time – This plugin adds the time to the beginning of the post but puts it on its own line. A distinct difference from the Estimated Reading Time plugin is that you can’t view the ERT from the front page if you’re using excerpts. The reading time is only seen on the single page view of the post.

Out of the six plugins I tried, none of them showed the estimated reading times on a front page using excerpts. If I were going to display them on my site, I’d show them within the post meta area where other information such as author, date, and the number of comments are displayed.

What I’ve discovered is that this particular feature is better off being baked into a theme versus using a plugin. Plugins give you the flexibility to determine when and where the time is displayed. But most of the time, it’s displayed next to a headline or a very small excerpt. By the time visitors are reading the article, it’s too late to show them the time.

Add ETR To Your Theme Without A Plugin

The Kent theme by Pro Theme Design is one example of a WordPress theme that uses ETR. Unfortunately, it’s only available on WordPress.com. However, Ben Gillbanks, one of the designers of Kent has published a code snippet to add it to any WordPress theme. The code is a reusable function you can use in your theme. However, only those with experience should consider using this code. If you’re unsure of what to do, contact the developer who created your theme and show them this code and ask to have it added to your theme. They should know what to do.

/**
 * Estimate time required to read the article
 *
 * @return string
 */
function bm_estimated_reading_time() {

    $post = get_post();

    $words = str_word_count( strip_tags( $post->post_content ) );
    $minutes = floor( $words / 120 );
    $seconds = floor( $words % 120 / ( 120 / 60 ) );

    if ( 1 < = $minutes ) {
        $estimated_time = $minutes . ' minute' . ($minutes == 1 ? '' : 's') . ', ' . $seconds . ' second' . ($seconds == 1 ? '' : 's');
    } else {
        $estimated_time = $seconds . ' second' . ($seconds == 1 ? '' : 's');
    }

    return $estimated_time;

}

My Thoughts On Estimated Reading Times

Despite some sites experiencing a benefit to publishing ETR’s on their site, I think it’s a dumb idea. Regardless of how long it takes to read an article, I think the content is what matters. If it’s compelling and I have enough interest in the subject, I’ll read the post from beginning to end. It’s just that, I’m always bombarded with distractions.

I think it’s a sign of the times that we need to show people it only takes 3-7 minutes of their time to read an article. However, I’m willing to admit that I’m part of the problem. I often read a third of a long post before scrolling all the way down to get to the end. Then I read the comments to see if there is anything I missed. But it’s not because I don’t have enough time, it’s because I’m always moving to the next post as if I don’t have enough time.

What do you think of estimated reading times for articles? Is it a metric you seek out to determine whether you consume a piece of content on the web or is it just another piece of data to ignore?

14 Comments


  1. I like the idea, if only because it tells me whether or not I have the moment to read it at that moment (less than 2 minutes or so) or send it to Pocket where I’ll read it during the time I set aside for that.

    That being said, I wrote a quick set of functions to handle this: https://gist.github.com/norcross/d10e26839699f61c00b7 One function to save the seconds, one to do the calculation, and one to display it. basic, but it does the job.

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    1. I’ve noticed for me personally that if the article is 7 minutes or longer, I just blow right past it thinking I don’t have that kind of time. I probably do have the time to read it but decide to somewhere else. I need to retrain myself to enjoy longform instead of only going after the nuggets of information.

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  2. Sometimes I think it would be of more value to have the estimated writing time so I know if it was a text produced with some real leg work or just a quick rewrite of something already out there.

    No implied hastywork to the article above intended. :-)

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    1. I thought about timing the writing time automatically, by having a plugin actually time the amount of time spent in the Editor and optionally, how much time users spent creating comments. But that approach wouldn’t work if the author didn’t write a post inside WP and it wouldn’t cover the time done researching.

      I really don’t get why sites use ETR though over a word count. For me, it makes me more time conscientious since time is scarce, it’s only going to give me more reasons to bail. I don’t really buy Cray’s results either, much too small of a test to say anything conclusive for his site (let alone as a general practice).

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      1. Hah, if that data were public, you’d see some short Tavern posts I write take hours instead of maybe 45 minutes or so. I guess it would show how distracted I get or how far off the beaten path I go when researching.

        I bet ETR is much easier to process than a word count. Also, I think seeing 3-5 minutes instead of 1,200 words isn’t as scary and not much of a put off.

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  3. FYI, Colbert Report and Daily Show videos from the official site are unavailable outside of the US (licensing).

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    1. Sorry if you weren’t able to view it. I’ve run into the issue as well with certain YouTube videos.

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  4. When I paste bm_estimated_reading_time() code into my functions.php, I get a PHP error.

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    1. I don’t know the exact process for adding the code to your theme. Did you copy and paste the entire snippet into functions.php?

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  5. We use this as SellwithWP (the Estimated Reading Times plugin) simply because we write lots of long form stuff mixed with shorter articles. Similar to what Norcross said, some people like to know if they can read now, or save it for later. You can view it on our most recent article right below post meta.

    We’ve tweaked it a bit to use its own line and to add a “Last Updated” notice (using either the post date or any update date after it). Here’s what we did in `content-single.php`

    <p class=”reading-time”>
    <?php post_read_time(); ?> | <em>Last updated on</em>
    <time datetime=”<?php the_modified_time(‘Y-m-d’); ?>”><?php if ( strtotime( get_the_modified_time( ‘Y-m-d’ ) ) <strtotime( get_the_date() ) ) :
    echo get_the_date();
    else :
    echo get_the_modified_time(‘F j, Y’);
    endif;
    ?></time>
    </p>

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    1. Nice implementation. But just like every other WordPress plugin solution I’ve seen, you can’t tell from the front page what the estimated reading time is for posts. Does it make sense to only have that info on the single post view versus on the front page next to or under the headlines? I’m thinking of how Slate does it.

      The argument of whether to read it now or save it for later via Pocket or bookmark is the best well rounded reason I’ve heard for displaying ETR. Used that way, it makes sense.

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  6. So i can’t seem to figure this out. I copied the snippet in functions.php, Then i called it like this in content-single.php :
    . Nothing gets printed. I am trying to make this happen on underscores, however I have also tried it on another theme and the result is the same. The paragraph printed is blank. What am I doing wrong ?

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