Answers, decisions, results: With Axis, Yahoo firms up search messaging

Google always offered results. Then Microsoft came along and promised decisions. Yahoo's new Axis seeks to give you answers. Which kind of query will you choose?

Yahoo released its Axis search "experience" -- sadly, it's not a Disneyland ride, but could you imagine!? -- this morning, knitting together its search platform across the desktop and mobile environments.

I won't bore you with the details -- for the nitty-gritty, read my colleague Zack Whittaker's post, and for a peek, see our photo gallery -- but what I found most interesting was how each of tech's giants is positioning search in the 21st century.

Here's how Yahoo's Shashi Seth explained the company's search efforts:

Our search strategy is predicated on two core beliefs -- one, that people want answers, not links and two, that consumer-facing search is ripe for innovative disruption. With Axis, we have re-defined and re-architected the search and browse experience from the ground up.

Emphasis, of course, is mine.

On first read, Seth's words -- "not links" -- read like the Google potshot they are. But it's his use of the word "answers" that's more interesting to me.

Remember when Microsoft released Bing? It took great pains to distance itself from the word "search," calling the product a "decision engine" and releasing irritating television commercials illustrating filter failure at its worst. "People should expect more from a search engine," they preached, effectively saying: We won't just give you search results and leave you to sift through them. We'll actually solve your problems.

This is, of course, marketing spin -- on the Internet, you are the decider. But it helped address a persistent problem that most users experience, which is that we were spending an increasing amount of time rummaging through the web's detritus for what we wanted instead of actually enjoying it.

Too much ride, not enough destination.

Google...search.

Bing...decisions.

Axis...answers?

The alliteration is a nice touch -- let's hope the Second World War vibes I get are just a matter of me reading too much historical nonfiction -- but I find the differentiation approach here to be fascinating.

It's no secret that Yahoo is in search of an identity. It's had an embarrassing number of chief executives in recent years and it's lost its way. (Longtime Yahoo followers could say, with good reason, that the company --- best known for being an Internet portal -- never had one.) Like Microsoft, though a bit more slow-footed, Yahoo sees Axis not as a money-maker but a common thread with which to string together its profitable products. The difference here, of course, is that there's no Office or Xbox in Yahoo's quiver.

It's going to take years of work to make Yahoo's efforts with Axis worthwhile, because there are a lot of components missing in this theoretical vertical stack, e.g. hardware and software. (Microsoft: Windows PCs and IE, Xbox, Windows Phones; Google: Chrome, Google TV, Android. Yahoo: uh...)

But the difference is ads. While Yahoo's Axis-speak is more comparable to Microsoft's spin, it's actually Google, which makes money hand-over-fist with search advertising, that offers the actual revenue model to imitate here.

Google may not call its services anything more than "search," but it makes the most money from the kinds of queries that seek answers: insurance. loans. mortgage. attorney. credit. et cetera. (But not decisions. Har har.)

The fact is that Yahoo wants a piece of Google's ever-growing pie -- and it demonstrated in 2009 that it was willing to work with Microsoft to do so. Axis is a product of this collaboration: powered by Redmond, monetized by Sunnyvale.

As our fearless leader Larry Dignan put it in January: "Beating Yahoo is meaningless to Microsoft. Bing needs to dent Google."

Are answers the same as decisions? Not according to Merriam-Webster:

  • answer (noun): A thing said, written, or done to deal with or as a reaction to a question, statement, or situation.
  • decision (noun): A conclusion or resolution reached after consideration.

Yahoo isn't keen on splitting hairs. In the fight against Google, the differences are inconsequential.

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