Any good trip down the internet rabbit hole begins with an entry into the search bar, the portal from which consumers can summon every scrap of information in existence.
What’s the best running shoe? How do I make lasagna? Where can I get my kid’s hair cut?
New research from Wharton marketing professor Shiri Melumad reveals that the method of query makes a big difference in the quality of search results. When consumers use voice technology to dictate their search, rather than type it, their search yields better answers that are more precisely tailored to what they are looking for online. By saying it out loud, their vague requests become more specific: What’s the best Nike shoe for long-distance running? How do I make vegetarian lasagna without boiling noodles? Where can I cut my kid’s long, curly hair on a budget?
“It’s a little bit counterintuitive,” Melumad told Wharton Business Daily about the key finding from her recent paper titled, “Vocalizing Search: How Voice Technologies Alter Consumer Search Processes and Satisfaction.”
How Voice Search Differs From Typed Search
The paradox arises from the fact that most people experience a certain amount of frustration with voice technology such as Siri, Alexa, and Google. Although these virtual assistants have come a long way from their early days of development, consumers are still anxious that they will be misunderstood when talking to one. So, they pause and think ahead about what they want to say before indicating their queries, leading them to articulate their requests more carefully in the hopes that the technology will get it right.
Melumad said this kind of thoughtful rumination is what sets voice queries apart from typed commands.
“When we type, it tends to be more spontaneous. If I make a typo, I can easily delete and retype,” she said. “With voice, because we can’t easily edit ourselves if we misspeak or are misunderstood, we tend to actually give more forethought to our query before indicating it.”
Another noteworthy reason why voice searches yield more satisfying results, according to the professor, is the propensity for people to feel self-conscious when talking to others. Because of this, people often try to be extra clear and concise in their speech. Again, that precision and clarity lead to more accurate search results.
“When I talk out loud, I reflexively think about how my words might come across to other people, even when I’m alone in a room just talking to myself,” Melumad said.
“When we type, it tends to be more spontaneous…. With voice, we tend to actually give more forethought to our query before indicating it.”— Shiri Melumad
What Marketers Need to Know About Voice Search
Melumad conducted five separate studies to evaluate consumers’ queries for voice versus typed searches using Google, and how they feel about these search processes. The studies included a survey, three controlled experiments, and a supplemental experiment. She said the results were robust across all five studies, an indication that voice technology is more than just an alternate input method for consumers.
“These findings bear important implications for firms and consumers, as they imply that voice technologies may be doing more than simply offering an additional modality for consumer search,” she wrote in the paper. “By reshaping the content of consumers’ queries relative to typing, voice technologies can alter the quality of search results that consumers are exposed to.”
As voice search becomes more ubiquitous, brands need to think about the impact it will have on their products, she said. Melumad found that because voice queries tend to be more specific, they often included more references to things like brand names. Melumad concluded that voice search is more beneficial for bigger brands because they were more likely to be mentioned by name during a search. “What’s the best Nike shoe for long-distance running?” is an example.
But the specificity of a voice search may squeeze smaller, lesser-known brands out of the results. In that sense, voice search can be bad for business because it may limit brand exploration, Melumad said.
“My findings suggest that larger brands, like a Nike, may want consumers to use vocalized search, whereas smaller brands may benefit more from the vaguer queries that are generated from typing.”
Melumad said her paper is the first to examine the distinct psychological outcomes of different search queries. It opens the door to more questions about how consumers adapt and interact with technology, which is an area of focus for her. Some of her future research includes how consumers who use voice assistants to make product choices may be willing to pay more to avoid saying embarrassing brand names out loud.
“Much of my research to date has looked at smartphones and how they are affecting our psychology and decisions, but there’s really a lot of work to be done in the area of voice technology,” she said.