Yahoo’s Axis: Visual Search, an iOS Browser and No ‘Ten Blue Links’

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Harry McCracken /

When you talk to folks from Yahoo about the subject of search engines, they tend to be a tad defensive. Since 2010, Yahoo search has been a repackaged variant of Microsoft‘s Bing. Some people think that means that Yahoo is out of the search game — but in fact, it continues to employ search scientists and engineers who work on designing new interfaces for search, even if Bing lurks under the surface.

And now Yahoo’s search team is releasing Yahoo Axis, a new way to find stuff online that forsakes the conventional “ten blue links” results page used by Google, Yahoo and Bing in favor of thumbnail previews which remain available even after you’ve clicked away from your initial search. Using thumbnails as part of search results isn’t a new concept — Google lets you see them by clicking on any link in its results — but Axis is the most thumbnail-centric search tool I’ve seen to date. (Yahoo recently briefed me on the product and let me try it in advance.)

On Windows PCs and Macs, Axis is a browser plug-in for Chrome, Firefox and Safari. On iPhones and iPads, Apple doesn’t permit Safari plug-ins, so Axis is a stand-alone browser. Like all third-party iOS browsers except for Opera Mini, it’s built on Apple’s Safari engine, but Yahoo has designed its own interface, bookmark system and other features.

In any of its variants, the Axis experience is pretty much the same. As you begin to type a search query, you get suggestions of phrases you might be trying to enter, just as in any modern search engine. But Axis also starts showing you a horizontal strip of thumbnail images of pages in its search results. Tap on a thumbnail and you go to that site; the strip disappears. But you can bring back the thumbnails from any page, without re-typing your search query or going to Yahoo itself.

Why would you want to see a small preview of a web page before you visited it? In some cases, it doesn’t help much, especially since most of the type is usually too small to read easily. But it lets you identify favorite sites such as Wikipedia, Facebook or Amazon at a glance. And you can often quickly tell whether a site looks pleasingly professional or alarmingly cheesy, or get a sense of whether it’s a reference site, a shopping site or something else. Being able to return to results without leaving the page you’re on is a plus, too.

Axis does traditional garden-variety search and image search, but not other speciality types such as news. Yahoo says it may add additional options over time.

As usual with Yahoo search, you’re getting results based on Microsoft’s Bing index. But Yahoo has fiddled with the order of results in some instances to reflect pages that people visit most often and stay on for the longest time. It also leads some results with a box of Yahoo-generated information — such as local weather and movie listings.

Beyond the visual search feature, all forms of Axis sync bookmarks and searches with other versions, so you can start a search session on one device and pick up on another. (You need to log in for this to work, with a Yahoo, Facebook or Google account.) All also have bookmark managers which are as thumbnail-oriented as the search feature is.

Yahoo hopes that some folks will use the iPhone and iPad versions of Axis as their primary browsers. These apps are slick and fun to use, and have a few features missing in Safari, including the ability to instruct the browser to fib about which version it is — useful if you want a desktop version of a site instead of a mobile one — and to pin a page in Pinterest. They also use thumbnails to help you bop between tabs.

Overall, though, they’re pretty basic browsers. You give up Safari’s Reader option for streamlining pages and its private browsing mode. And as with all alternative iOS browsers, you can’t set Axis as the default browser. Yahoo says it plans to add more features over time, and is contemplating putting Axis on other mobile platforms such as Android.

I’m not sure why Launch is calling Axis a “Chrome killer” — it’s not even a full-blown browser — but by eliminating the much-disparaged blue links rather than supplementing them with other types of information, it’s doing something pretty daring. It’s worth checking out, whether or not you’ve used Yahoo search lately, and even if you, like me, aren’t a blue-link hater.