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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]