Yahoo's Axis And The New Search Wars

Yahoo is reimagining the front end. Google is working on the back end. And Bing is tackling both. Who will win the new search wars?

On Wednesday, Yahoo released Axis, a new browser plug-in and iPhone and iPad app that purports to "reinvent" the search experience. It's not so much of a reinvention, however, than it is an upgrade of the old search experience, albeit a clever and potentially delightful one. (And, it should be noted, one that made a not-entirely-smooth debut.)

Axis comes on the heels of a new launch from Microsoft's Bing and rumblings from Google about its own plans to "make search smarter." All of which is to say: A new search war is on the horizon—and one that promises to turbocharge the experience for all of us. 

The three leaders in this space have each realized that the conventional paradigms for search, architected over a decade ago when bandwidth was low, few people used the web for more than research, and almost all computing was done at desktops, no longer work in an age of mobile apps, multiple devices, big data, and ever greater expectation on the part of the consumer that working online is about getting things done, not just perusing documents. 

Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo, therefore, are all competing to come up with the new killer search experience.

The primary feature of Yahoo's new Axis system is that it no longer returns "10 blue links," the paradigm established in the late '90s when search was first born. Instead Axis offers you visual previews of its results, whether in the plug-in for your desktop browser (as in the image below) or on the app on your iPhone or iPad. 

Axis also abandons the vertical scroll paradigm, which made sense 13 years ago when everything on the web scrolled vertically. Instead, Axis allows you to scroll horizontally, both through a set of results, which appear at the top of the page, or through the actual pages themselves, down below, a la Fast Flip (Google's news reader, launched in 2009 and discontinued last fall). This makes sense given that Axis is based on a "mobile first" mindset; it's optimizing for the iPhone and iPad, where users have become used to using their touch screens to flip from screen to screen. (For more on the redesign, see our story on Co.Design.)

Ultimately, however, Axis is only an enhancement to the user interface. At its core, it still revolves around the idea of delivering users to documents. That might be fine for now, and even the next few years. But it might not be sufficient in the long run. 

Bing and Google, on the other hand, have been fundamentally reimagining the purpose of search itself. Search was originally about helping users find web pages, because that's all there was on the web. But both Microsoft and Google realize that, from the user's perspective, "finding web pages" is ultimately just a proxy for "finding information in those pages that helps me get something done." 

That's why they've been focusing on re-working search as an app that delivers utilities right in the results that help you get that "something" done, whether, for example, it's booking a table at a restaurant you were searching for or buying tickets for the movie whose show times you were looking up.

Microsoft has done the most front-end work in this direction, including a launch earlier this month of a new "social search" feature that integrates with social media to do a better job of helping you identify friends who might have the answers you're looking for.

Still, both companies are doing deep back-end work, developing semantic databases that, as Bing director Stefan Weitz told Fast Company earlier this month, "model every object on the planet." Building those databases (Google is calling its one a "Knowledge Graph") will enable both companies to leap to the next generation of search.

They might be onto something. According to Experian Hitwise, Bing's share of the U.S. market grew 16% over the last year (from April 2011 to April 2012). It now stands at 14%. That might seem like a small portion of the overall market, but consider that Bing hasn't even been around for three years yet. 

Yahoo's share of U.S. search only grew 7% in that same time period. It's now at 16%, after having been around for over a decade. And Google share actually decreased 5%, to 64%. That can't necessarily be interpreted as a repudiation of its Knowledge Graph strategy, however, given that, so far, the work the company's been doing on the back end hasn't been served up to the user on the front end as extensively has Microsoft has been doing. 

So who will win the search wars?

In the short run, Axis may enable Yahoo to grab yet more share of the search market. It's an attractive user experience, and Ethan Batraski, Yahoo director of product, tells Fast Company that the service tested well with 18-35-year-old males, the demographic Yahoo identifies as early adopters. Batraski says Axis produced more "click yield" and was able to deliver users to documents "significantly" faster, but he declined to provide specific numbers.

In the long run, though, while Yahoo's approach is fine for discovery—window shopping, if you will—it's not as effective at enabling users to accomplish discrete tasks quickly. For those searches, consumers may well increasingly turn to Bing, and stick with Google if it develops more front-end utilities. All of this is predicated, of course, on both companies' mastering the deep technical challenges of compiling their respective back ends, which is no easy feat and won't be completed anytime soon.

All three, however, will continue to fight hard. Search generates the lion's share of Google's revenues. And it's an important division within Yahoo as well. Says Batraski: "It's a billion-dollar business, so it's not something we're going to shy away from anytime soon."

Axis is available today in the United States and, according to Yahoo, will be rolled out to additional geographies, platforms, and devices in the months to come.

[Image: Flickr user x-ray delta one]

E.B. Boyd is FastCompany.com's Silicon Valley reporter. Twitter | Google+ | Email

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