Axis, Yahoo's "new kind of browser" that launched yesterday, is an attempt to do something noble and important. Yahoo has taken away the search results page, the intermediate step where a search engine makes most of its money, in order to get the user straight to where she's going. Axis is a gamble to redefine search. Unfortunately, Yahoo lost the bet.
On paper, Yahoo played Axis just right. It skipped trying to compete with the dominant desktop browsers, instead offering a plug-in that works on all of them. That enables Axis users to extend their browsing habits to the Axis apps for iPad and iPhone, which is much less settled territory. Mobile and tablet browsing is the next frontier, and Yahoo is wise to focus the next stage of its business there.
But what does that business look like?
Axis tries to reinvent search by getting rid of the results page. When you search, it displays a bar next to the page you're on with little previews of the sites it finds. This is supposed to be faster and more convenient, since the user can just look for the right preview, tap it once and load the page.
The convenience and speed of this search concept are supposed to be what hooks people into using Axis. What keeps them there is the way Axis syncs browsing history between the desktop and mobile versions, so users can switch back and forth easily between devices. Once you're in love with Axis, Yahoo can sell you all its services by promoting them heavily in the app and its search results.
But there are two intertwined problems with this. One is that it doesn't actually make search faster. In practice, these previews are devoid of information for many kinds of queries, and they often don't load images at all, just awkwardly cropped text. You still have to tap around to find what you want.
A search results page is not an inherently bad thing. If the most important feature of a search engine is to get the user to desired information as quickly as possible, it shouldn't matter where that information is.
Google has gone the opposite way, providing so much information on the results page itself that it often isn't even necessary to click through to a page. So what? The user got what she wanted, and it loaded incredibly fast because that's Google's highest priority. That search history is even synced across devices, just like history in Yahoo Axis.
But the second reason Axis fails should be familiar to Google. We can call it "the Google+ Effect." Axis privileges Yahoo's own services so much that people who don't use them will be frustrated. This is the same problem Google creates when it stuffs Google+ social features into its other services. People who already use and love Yahoo will be happy, but people who don't will have a worse experience.
If Axis was a mind-blowing search tool, maybe it would convert some users. But since it isn't, this product probably won't do much at all to help Yahoo regain relevance.