I was introduced today to the notion of "orienteering" as an information seeking strategy, through a paper presented at the CHI 2004 conference by Jamie Teevan and several other colleagues. The paper discusses orienteering as a strategy by which users make "small steps...used to narrow in on the target" rather than simply typing words in a search box. For some time, I've been struggling inside my head with trying to articulate the differences between the search engine model with a wide-open box for typing in a search and the library model with vast resources but a need for users to know ahead of time which of those resources are relevant to their search. This paper very clearly spoke to me, by demonstrating that real users (to use one of my favorite phrases) are somewhere in the middle.
Users have resources they like. We prefer one map site over another, one news site over another, one author over another. And we know where each of our prefered resources can be accessed. For many types of information needs, we know the right place (for us) to start looking. Even as we make the hidden Web more accessible, the resource (like an email) we need often won't be something a generic Web search engine can get to. But for many information needs, a box and "I'm feeling lucky" is an effective solution. I think the point is that we need a wide variety of discovery models to match the wide variety of our searching needs. We can't expect all users to start with the "right" resource (what's "right"?), but we should provide seamless methods for users to move, step by step, towards what they're looking for.