Blue Links Be Gone: Yahoo Introduces Browser And Visual Search Experience “Axis”

Search launches seem to come in threes. A couple of weeks ago we had Bing Social, then came Google with Knowledge Graph and now Yahoo introduces Axis

When I met with Yahoo earlier this week to hear about it I received the now familiar speech that Yahoo is still very much in search and continuing to “innovate” around the UI and UX. There have been some interesting efforts along those lines on the PC in the past (Yahoo Search Direct), but Axis actually is genuinely different and noteworthy.

Three screen experience

Axis is available for all three screens: PC (as a browser plug-in), the iPad and the iPhone (as apps). Android is coming.

Axis is a fully functional browser that syncs content across all screens if users are signed in. Like other browsers Axis features tabs and book marks and can render any web page.

On the PC it functions more as a “companion” search bar at the bottom of the page on each of the major browsers: IE, Chrome and Firefox. Below is an example of how it looks on Chrome in the context of a search for “Hawaiian vacations.” I’ve got the standard Google results and then Axis results horizontally across the bottom of the screen:

Three screen experience

It doesn’t automatically insert or mirror the query you’ve done on Google or Bing or launch the module you see above. You have to manually enter the query at the bottom of the page. Then it offers a visual preview (live pages) of the top ranked sites. The ranking of these sites is somewhat different than conventional Yahoo search results. Clicks and time on the underlying sites are factored into the ranking of these Axis results.

Users can then horizontally scroll through results rather than clicking back and forth on links. These images run for the equivalent of the first two pages of search results and then you get text and descriptions. However Yahoo suggested that most people aren’t going to go beyond a page or two of results anyway. My sense is that people will horizontally scroll for “longer” than vertically.

While this PC experience is useful and provides a kind of secondary or back-up search capability, Axis is ultimately about delivering a better, mobile-optimized search experience that completely eliminates the “10 blue links.”

Getting rid of blue links

Yahoo special products director Ethan Batraski said that Yahoo was trying to get rid of the interim “second page” of search results (the list of links) and go right from the query to the web results in “one step.”

There have been other PC search engines and mobile apps to present visual results rather than links, most recently in mobile by Do@ (now Everything.me). All of those essentially failed. But Yahoo has the advantage of scale and greater visibility than any of the visual search startups that came before.

Whenever you’re on a specific website, you can pull down the page and see the horizontal bar of search results. It’s always there in the background. Touching another image loads that page but the search results remain in the background and accessible until you do a new query. You’re not hitting the back button to return to search results.

This functionality works relatively well on the iPhone (especially image search) but it really is best shown on tablets (iPad only for the moment). The larger screen enables the visual nature of Axis to shine.

There’s also a personalized home page with bookmarks and saved articles that carries across screens when signed in. Users can sign in with Yahoo, Google or Facebook log-in credentials to access the capability.

About the “Axis” name

I asked Yahoo about the name “Axis,” which I said reminded me of World War II. They responded that they went through many names and there are “negative connotations” to others as well, including Chrome and Safari (though not many readily come to mind). Another interesting element here is the black aesthetic.

Yahoo has done market testing and sees an opening with young, affluent early adopter males. (Perhaps the “Spike TV” crowd.) Jokes aside, the company is seeking to cultivate new audiences with Axis and the edgier image is part of that effort. It struck me a bit like a sports team adopting tougher-looking uniforms and colors.

Yahoo went to some length with me and in the press materials to underscore that there’s innovative technology on the back end behind Axis:

Axis is built upon the Yahoo! Cocktails mobile development platform, which is designed for creating deeply personalized products that are built for connected devices first. Comprised of Mojito, an open source JavaScript MVC framework and Manhattan, a cloud-based hosted environment, Cocktails is a blend of open, standard web technologies including HTML5, CSS3, JavaScript and Node.JS.

Differentiated but will it “move the needle”?

Doing my best Walt Mossberg, I can say that after using it for several days on both the iPhone and iPad, and to a lesser degree, on the PC I think Yahoo has created a useful and differentiated mobile search experience. The syncing and multi-screen capability are also useful, although not unique.

Search Direct is the mother/father of this experience. And if it “takes” we may see traditional Yahoo search on the PC incorporate some or many of these UI/UX features and elements. That very much remains to be seen and is contingent on the success of Axis.

There will inevitably be questions like, “Will it move the needle for Yahoo?”

I don’t know. It depends on how aggressively Yahoo promotes Axis, how many people try it out and how many continue to use it. However I don’t think we’ll see any dramatic change in user behavior in the near term. But it does put some additional UI pressure on Google in mobile search, which just released a new version of its iPhone app today.

There are no ads for now. But one can easily imagine display ads showing up among the visual search results in the not too distant future. Yahoo wants to build an audience before it starts inserting ads, however.

Because Axis is quite distinct from the traditional PC and mobile search experience some will like it but some may find it too foreign. However I would encourage you to try it. It’s definitely worth a test drive.

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