Yahoo Announces Axis, A New Visual Paradigm In Web Search UI

By replacing blue links and article abstracts with images of websites, Yahoo Axis anticipates a day when how a website looks will tell you as much as what it has to say.

We take our search engine experience so much for granted that it can be hard to see with clear eyes. Consider this: The dead-simple process of Googling something actually has three distinct phases. First, you arrive at the URL and type your query. Second, you scan the long list of blue links that are your results. Third, you hopefully find what you need. With their new search app, Axis, Yahoo is claiming to have eliminated one of those steps altogether. The insight lies in making search into a far more visual, rather than text-based, experience. "We’re focusing on the front end," says Ethan Batraski, Yahoo’s director of product. "And in the last few years, the search experience hasn’t evolved much at all. But search is no longer a destination."

Thus, Axis is a browser-like experience that comes as either a tablet app, smartphone app, or a browser plug-in. It’s the iPad experience that lays bare exactly what’s going on. Tap it, and you arrive at a search bar in the upper left corner. Type in your query, and suggested topics fill in below. Where things get different is in the results. Rather than a list of blue links, you get tiles and webpage titles on your right. You can swipe through these, and if you tap on any one result, that page previews in the browser space below.

Granted, Yahoo’s claim at eliminating a middle step is a bit overblown, but note that there’s a subtle shift at work here. Rather than asking that you read capsule bits of text to try and parse whether a search result is relevant to you, they’re asking to look at the website. They’re using the thumbnail image of a website as a semantic shortcut that signals all sorts of information such as how well done the website is, how media rich it is, and how well its own tastes match up to yours. "This process manages your expectations from a site," argues Batraski. Put another way, the design of a website is another map of its relevance to you—just as the inbound hyperlinks give you an idea of who’s most reputable.

While I don’t know whether the UI that Yahoo has built will be refined and fun enough to gain a mass following, Yahoo’s position on Axis does seem reasonable. And also interesting: The suite of apps on your computer, browser, and mobile devices all sync, so that, for example, you can resume searches begun on your iPad when you move over to your PC.

If it might seem like a niche product right now, consider two things:

  1. Screens are growing larger, to the point that thumbnail images are actually quite rich now. They contain a vast amount of information.
  2. Increasingly, we do our web browsing on mobile. And tapping on links just isn’t nearly as immediate and pleasant as tapping on images.

Yahoo claims that Axis does indeed speed up the search process for the users it has observed. But perhaps the more interesting thing is that Axis might herald a new take on ads. Batraski says he can imagine mixing in sponsored images into the list of thumbnails. For example, if you search for anything Chevy related, there might be a Camaro pictured in your listings. Click on it, and you might be able to rotate it in 3-D in the preview window below. That solution gets to a subtle problem with ads as they appear on search pages now—with tablets, which privilege unbroken panoramic images, the tiny real estate in the top right corner just doesn’t feel as present or as well-integrated as it might on a desktop with a mouse.

For now though, Yahoo is staying cautious, opting not to monetize while they work out how people are actually using Axis. But they’re working with advertisers on test pilots. "This might be a lab for ad development," says Batraski. "There’s a lot of experiences that we’re thinking of down the road."

Click here to check it out.

[Top image: Yellowj via Shutterstock]

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  • Samuel lee kwon

    I do think the idea is from 2007 but the difference is now we are changing UI design more to intuitive visual previews. Also if you think about it, how beneficial it now can become a search engine to younger generation like a 7years old kid.

    The problem is the page ranking, content farming, bubbling ourselves, so how could we solve theses types of problem and really change the Searches result experience?   

  • Calvin Moisés Juárez

    A lot of comments say that the look of a website is not an indicator of its utility, and that's probably true.  I don't think that that matters, though.  People look at what a website looks like before reading anything that site says, and many won't stick around if the site looks bad.  Searches are quicker and less tedious with visual previews.

  • Michael Stafford

    This doesn't really seem like anything new. Haven't Yahoo been paying attention? All browsers have been moving to simpler and more user friendly interfaces. The last thing I want to install in my current browser is yet another toolbar. It feels so 1998.

  • Samuel lee kwon

    I think that installing part take less then 5 sec and it is more simpler then you think PS. in 1998 and still most info are tag or written base Boring data~!

  • Earl

    Uhhh... Google has been doing this in search results for about 2-3 years (visual preview).  My old company actually developed this "new" Yahoo Axis search concept back in 2007.  Although a cool novelty, visual thumbnails don't signify best results for the actual website itself.  The visual search idea is pretty old, but I do like the multi-platform feature for smart search with this new Axis thingy.

  • Don Elliott

    I like the concept. I don't like that it's an extension I have to install instead of a webpage. Also, the placement of the extension (at least in Safari) sucks. It's in the bottom left corner which blocks content on many sites. If it would use the primary search area in the top right and drop down the list like a drawer, instead of blocking the site I might use it. Instead it's been quickly uninstalled.

  • Aaron Trostle

    Axis is exactly what its thin website makes it look like. A 2000-era browser search toolbar. Except its results are simply thumbnails with no additional information about the result.

  • Ken Lonyai

    Two things immediately come to mind:

    1. Yahoo waited waaaaaaaaay too long to start thinking about changing the search (or "directory") results paradigm. Now that they are a shadow of their former selves, how much can it help them, whether it's great or not?

    2. Often, visual is not a good indicator of results, say for example, looking up medical information.

  • Clampants

    "Rather than asking that you read capsule bits of text to try and parse whether a search result is relevant to you, they’re asking to look at the website."

    They're also asking you to look at banner ads within those thumbnail search results (the first thumbnail in the example image shows, prominently, a Smart Car banner ad...when I've searched for surfing).  This seems like a step backward.

  • Cory Banks

    Too bad the iPad app seems not available outside the US iTunes store. Getting tired of having to wait.

  • Wolfgang

    Great new approach. Cant wait to try it. And "Axis" is a great choice for a product name as well. It combines Accessibility with the axis which aligns different devices. The x feels a little bit 90ies though. The logo however is not good designed at all. The spacing is too lose. And the strokes of the A typogram and the letters doesnt share the same line stroke weight. To me it looks even like a mix of upper and lower case letters scaled to the same size.... Just the typographers take on it :-)


  • Hotelier

    Yeah, it's genius. Until you recall that "Axis" also refers to Nazi Germany and its network of allied powers under the Third Reich. Keep up the good ideas, guys!