During a recent sales seminar for a search engine provider I saw a piece of statistic that said that 26% of all users start their interaction with a website by going straight for the search field and entering a query. That might sound like a big incentive to go for a search driven design and really optimize the internal search engine. For me, that single statistic says that a vast majority of users (74%) prefer to start by using the conventional navigational elements.
Furthermore, it doesn’t say why the users have turned to search for their first interaction. I believe many scan the navigational elements but don’t find a suitable entry since so many websites are way too bloated. So, the issue isn’t the traditional navigation (which most still prefer), it’s the amount of information and the information architecture.
Getting users to find the right information is most of all about reducing the amount of noise.
What we really can learn from the proponents of search driven websites is how they use dynamic search terms and suggestions. A common feature is to suggest popular searches and even display the most used search terms. This information should be used to constantly iterate the information and conventional navigation on the website!
Of course there are scenarios where you can’t or don’t want to reduce the amount of information or choices and in these cases search driven navigation can be the right way to go. It means though that the users have to know what they’re looking for and you have to be careful not to invent new ways of navigating just for the sake of it. Conventions are powerful and give a sense of security for the users, to deviate from them requires that the added value surpasses the threshold of not using the usual norms of navigation. However, always make sure to use the information from the internal search engine to see what the users really want to find.