ORCHIDS ON THE WEB

April 2000

This article was requested by and published in the Orchid Council of New Zealand 2000 Yearbook.

Unfortunately in the pre-production process, without my knowledge, the site addresses quoted were altered and made unworkable, and certain key paragraphs were deleted from the original text. No correction was published in the subsequent issue (as would be expected from a responsible publisher), and their efforts to bring the corrections to the attention of those with the publication appear to have been largely ineffective.

Web addresses in this version have been updated to relfect the current layout of the site which have changed from the time of the original publication. Also, pages in some main series have also been subsequently re-designed from those illustrated.

(Please note that the site has been updated and expanded since this article was written) 


Introduction
 

One of the recent developments in the wold of orchid growing has been the growth (excuse the pun) of electronic orchid growing, the rapid expansion of the Internet with its contacts, discussion forums and vast amount of information. Whether we like it or not, it is as force that cannot be ignored.

In considering my qualification to write an article on this subject, it is appropriate to consider my involvement with the net. I had been surfing for some time, and became intrigued with the way it was all put together. A computer magazine provided information on the basics of web site construction, and provided the source to the required free software. I downloaded this, and after playing with it for some time, decided that I should try something realistic, and with my involvement with orchids, set up pages for the Capital City Orchid Society (http://homepages.ihug.co.nz/~tomnz/ccos.htm.). I was pleased with this, and said to the society I would upload it onto the net to see what interest it may generate. This was on the basis that there was no charge to the society, but that I would control it and could take it off any time if that became necessary for any reason. It rapidly became apparent that to be successful there needed to be sufficient articles on the site to attract people back, and that the range of material provided should not be static in content. Since March 1998 when the first pages were uploaded the site has been expanded to the extent it now has over 300 pages including some 130 photographic pages, and is now large for a non commercial site. The index at http://homepages.ihug.co.nz/~tomnz/index.htm, lists all the pages available. As at the date of writing, visitors have viewed over 34,000 pages from the site, currently averaging over 85 per day.(As at 1.2002 there have been over 250,000 page visitors, averaging 450=500 per day)

Screen shot of site index page using frames version; full site directory down left frame, main frame with directory list. (Site has bdeen subsequently re-designed)

The following discussion covers my experience with the establishment and running of the site, and as I view the web implications for orchid growing and orchid growers.

Even those who are not on the Internet cannot have escaped the discussions regarding the World Wide Web. The ability of one computer to talk to thousands of others and a cleverly thought out series of protocols and software, has allowed the rapid expansion of this amazing system over a relatively short period of time. When surfing, watching where the files are downloaded from is an amazing study of geography. One interesting statistic I have seen is that 70,000 new pages a day are added, and that figure is probably already out of date. Those who have created the net have made it simple and easy to use, from something that is immensely complex. This simplicity is what makes its use so attractive. Once you have a connection to the Internet creation of your own web site is only constrained by your own imagination. The tools to do this can be obtained without cost and information on the processes involved is widely available.
 

The use of the Internet

Orchid growers will be interested in three areas of the Internet. 

  • Newsgroups 
  • E-mail 
  • Internet or World Wide Web 

Newsgroups enable people with similar interests to easily communicate by way of message programs to ask and receive answers to particular problems. For the orchid community, the Newsgroup rec.gardens.orchids has many knowledgeable people who can provide excellent information to both novice and experienced growers, but there are other similar groups. This system is widely used, and if one looks at the current messages it is obvious novice and new growers are making full use of this service. This has a North American bias because most of those involved are from that area, but the audience is world wide and if the questions are carefully phrased relevant and useful answers can be obtained quickly. In a recent development Newsgroups have been established where communication can be by voice over the Internet rather than by typed messages, something we are sure to see expanded over the next few years.

E-mail, or electronic mail messages, are a major attraction of the Internet, enabling quick and inexpensive correspondence to be sent around the world. With the above newsgroups messages can be posted to the group or can be sent direct to the questioner by e-mail. The system allows fast discussion with those with like interests around the world, or any friend or relation, provided they have a connection to the net. Or they can be accessed at the cyber cafes established around the world, as many travellers are now doing. You can receive rubbish messages, but these can be easily deleted, and we are all used to trash mail anyhow. If you are using e-mail a lot, it is wise to use anti virus software because of the problems that can occur, notwithstanding that the risks of becoming infected are very low.

The Internet or the World Wide Web as it is also known in effect is a large database or library of information backed by a superb communication system. It can be overwhelming to the uninitiated, but one can quickly become efficient in navigating around it. The use of the search engines such as Altavista, Excite, Yahoo, Infoseek, SearchNZ, help find the selected information, although you do need to take care in selecting your criteria for the search. Programs using multiple search engines such as Webferret can also be most effective as not all search engines work the same way or produce the same results. For my own site it has been found most often by the Altavista search engine

Many 'directory' pages exist, where people have brought together a list of sites for a particular interest. These directory or index pages are invaluable, and most users will quickly build up a list of such sites for their future use. My page http://homepages.ihug.co.nz/~tomnz/websites.htm is such a directory, and other good starting points for orchids are The Weblopedia http://conbio.bio.uci.edu/orchid/ and the Orchid Mall http://www.orchidmall.com/index.htm, but these are only several amongst many. Within NZ the Pipers Directory http://www.piperpat.co.nz/nz/index0.html is very comprehensive as is the Te Puna (formerly Aranui) Index http://tepuna.natlib.govt.nz/web_directory/, both excellent for sourcing general information on NZ.

Commerce on the web is of increasing importance, and will become more so over the next few years. This will open up the international market place and one can foresee buying from the Internet will be no different from shopping at the corner store, only with a vaster range of products at highly competitive prices. Internet fraud reports are prominent in the news media, but if you use common sense the risks are no greater than mail order credit card purchases, and I am sure most of us have made many of those without problems.
 

NZ on the web

Internationally the orchid community has adopted the Internet to a considerable degree, especially in America. In this country the process appears to have been much slower. I established my site on the 9th March 1998, based on three pages for the Capital City Orchid Society of Wellington http://www.geocities.com/orchidsnzpaph/ccos.htm. At that time it appeared several NZ societies were listed in overseas directories, but there were no dedicated orchid sites. The NZ Native Orchid Group, in association with its Australian affiliates had an already established site http://www.anos.org.au/groups/newzealand/nznogframe.html. and became the first NZ orchid organisation with a significant web presence. More recently the Whangarei Orchid Society site was established at http://mysite.xtra.co.nz/~orchids/page1.html, and the Hutt Valley Orchid Circle http://www.geocities.com/orchidsnzpaph/hvoc.htm The Orchids 2000 show also established its own limited site mid 1999 , and I provided visitors information from the official newsletters , and also a slide show on past events in this country at http://geocities.com/Heartland/Grove/5546/showsslideshow/sh1start.htm

Screen shot of Capital City Orchid Society main page

There have been several small private sites, mainly featuring our native orchids. Notable NZ commercial sites are the Blue Mountain Nursery (Pleiones) http://www.bmn.co.nz/index.html, Tuckers Orchid Nursery http://www.tuckersorchidnursery.co.nz/ , and Papa Aroha Paphiopedilums http://funk.co.nz/papaarohaorchids/index.html. As can be expected, Australia has many sites, both commercial and private, covering a wide range of orchid subjects.

But is it worth it?

It is fair to ask the question, does the society obtain any benefit from the web? This is not an easy question to answer. I believe there are benefits, but at this stage they are not dramatic, and probably produce long term benefits only. I believe its importance and utility will only increase in future years, however.

In the period the Capital City Orchid Society site has been established, it has received 4 overseas visitors, although only one of these actually made the meeting because of the timing of their visits. One inquiry for membership has been received, and this may be formalised if their transfer to Wellington finally eventuates. I believe it attracted some visitors to its shows as I received several E-mails about them, but it is difficult to know how many. I have received inquiries regarding membership of societies elsewhere in New Zealand, especially in the Auckland area. I advised the appropriate contacts but again I do not know if these were followed up On this basis the web pages have produced limited initial benefits.

There is, however, a wider issue and this is the fostering of an interest in orchid matters. It is in this area that I believe the web is fulfilling a major need. If you follow the newsgroups, for example, you will readily identify a vital need is expressed by many people for basic cultural information covering all aspects of orchid growing. While there may be reducing membership of the traditional societies, the growing of orchids is certainly not reducing if this interest is anything to go by. It is, however, interesting that when discussing the possibility or desirability of the new growers joining a society, they express no interest. But they still want the information. And it is possible that after they have been successful in growing and flowering their plants, they may eventually join. As an aside virtually all my pages have an animated graphic encouraging people to join a society, and that links to a page with lists of societies, both those with a web presence, and those affiliated with the American Orchid Society. Of the total visitors to the site, only 0.7% of take advantage of this facility, and it is again difficult to know what memberships may result. It is worth commenting that while there are numerous societies hosting orchid sites, few directly encourage membership amongst novice growers, and perhaps this is an area that at some stage will have to be addressed by national or even the international orchid organisations. The challenge for societies is to attract new members, as without them they will not survive, and there must be many potential members amongst those inquiring about orchids on the Internet. How this is achieved deserves study by both national and international orchid organisations.

Graphic inviting viewers to contact orchid society

Site features

After some experience with running my site, and from reading material on construction, it is apparent that there are some essential elements. 
1. Sites must be attractive and clear. There are sites with black backgrounds and dark text which are almost impossible to read. Visitors will not stay at such sites. 
2. There must be excellent content, and that content must be frequently updated or expanded. Once I established a range of material it was rapidly apparent that the number of visitors increased. For the first 12 months with limited pages there were 8000 visitors, for the second year with significantly expanded information, there will be over 25,000.
3. There must be good graphics that load reasonably quickly. Not always possible, but there are techniques to ensure rapid loading.
4. For every hour constructing a site, at least as much time should be spent on its promotion. There are many possibilities available, and you must take advantage of any opportunities that arise, especially if you have to do it without cost.
The first challenge is to attract visitors to the site. The next and perhaps greater challenge is to encourage viewers to come back. This will only occur if the visit is satisfying to the individual. You encourage returns by good content and also by offering free goodies - I offer a number of free orchid screensavers http://www.fortunecity.co.uk/amusement/frisbee/39/screensavers.htm with this in mind, but also a range of material of interest to a wide range of orchid growers.

The use of multi pages visible on the screen at the same times using the frames facility of browsers is not always popular. I have the site fully viewable without frames, http://homepages.ihug.co.nz/~tomnz/index.htm but also have a frames version http://homepages.ihug.co.nz/~tomnz/siteframe.html designed to facilitate movement to all pages, which is important given the number of pages involved. If you visit deep into the site, the use of this frames version is highly recommended. The frames version also shows some extra local and international links, such as to the Sanders Lists Search facility to be included.

What is wanted

In an effort to see what type of information is sought by uses of the Internet I installed a number of counters which produces basic information about visitors. This has produced some interesting insights.

I have one counter that covers all pages (other than the photographic pages). This currently records over 75 hits per day or some 27,000 per year(At 1.2002 the numbers are 450 per day; over 150,000 per year). As can be anticipated, the North American's dominate, USA visitors comprising 30% of total visitors. Australians did not find the site for quite some time, but have now become a significant user. Other uses, in reducing order of importance, are from Norway, France, Singapore, Netherlands, South Africa, Belgium, Thailand, United Kingdom, Malaysia and Turkey, with visitors coming from some 60 countries in total. Interestingly, visitors have also come from the Russian Federation, Ukraine, Slovakia, and Romania. Presumably these visitors are English speaking, although the Internet does offer a facility where pages can be instantly translated into a number of languages, and perhaps these and other viewers have used this facility.

When I first looked at the counters, I thought the weekends would be the high use period, but in fact most visitors come mid week. Saturday and Sunday attract substantially fewer visitors.

All Internet surfers have used search engines. It is interesting that hits to my site from search engines are dominated by Altavista (over 50% of all hits) followed with Excite with about one third of Altavista. All the other engines are significantly less. The main slide show programme used on the site is customised to Internet Explorer only; Netscape browsers will not operate (although a new program will work with both). I accepted this limitation on the basis that 80% of visitors use Internet Explorer 4 or 5. Netscape is used by only some 15% of visitors. Likewise, 90% of visitors use Windows 95, 98 and NT operating systems. 50% use a screen resolution of 1024 x 768, with a further 34% 800 x 600. My site uses the higher resolution, but at the lower resolution of 800 x 600 will still be totally readable.

Looking at the individual pages and multi page series, the statistics conform a requirement for basic growing information. My most viewed series in that on monthly culture http://www.angelfire.com/or3/orchidsnz/cymb/monthly_cullture_introduction.html, which on average receives 11 visits per day. Interestingly, the series listing the main dendrobium species (http://www.geocities.com/Heartland/Grove/5546/Den-start.htm) receives 7 visits per day, a most surprising number for such a specialised series, probably reflecting their uniqueness. The series on cattleyas (http://www.geocities.com/orchidsnzcats/cat.htm) is also popular with 4 daily visits, with a similar number accessing the screensavers page. The habitats (http://www.geocities.com/orchidsnzculture/hab1.htm) and cymbidium pages (seasonal culture) (http://www.geocities.com/orchidsnzculture/cymbidms.htm) both receive 3 visits per day with the Capital City (http://www.geocities.com/orchidsnzpaph/ccos.htm), websites directory page (http://geocities.com/orchidsnzpaph/websites.htm), general culture table (http://www.angelfire.com/or3/orchidsnz/cymb/culture.htm), and oncidium (http://www.angelfire.com/or3/orchidsnz/onc_intro.htm) receiving 2 daily visits. A recent addition of a series on paphiopedilums was uploaded too recently for meaningful statistics. (http://www.angelfire.com/or3/orchidsnz/paph_intro.htm). although for the last 2 months has received 7 visitors per day. Other specialised pages on repotting, fertilisers, growth and development and similar receive regular attention, but at a lower rate. The existence of these pages which may not be widely viewed often encourage book marking of the site for possible future use.

The site has generated its fair share of viewer feedback, which has been positive. I believe the integration of the Capital City Orchid Society page initially has been beneficial, as this gave initial access to many directory listings, but now the site is established and large enough to register on the major search engines to receive its share of attention. It is appropriate to acknowledge that the spread of information about the site by word of mouth and by e-mail has also been important and that the reciprocal listing on similar sites around the web has also been very important. I have no doubt that there is a real demand for basic growing information, but also that coverage of technical subjects is important long term. Such pages may not receive heavy attention, but the existence of such material attracts visitors back. A small stand alone site of 1 or 2 pages has difficulty in attracting much attention.

Because the site now takes some 30 megabytes of storage and it is non commercial I have had to utilise other free servers. The penalty of this is that some pages show advertising, but without this facility such a large site would not be possible. Material is in fact on 4 servers which makes site administration more complex, but allows more material, especially graphics, than would otherwise be possible.

Final comments

Whether we like it or not the Internet is becoming of major importance. Not only will it become a major information source, but E-mail will only increase in its usage as will Internet commerce. While probably only a minority of members of a society currently have an internet connection, that will change, and it will not be long before the net will become the main medium for communicating with society members. The use of net telephony is already with us, and will become more used. While some societies have touched the power of the Internet, I believe far too few have. Whether we like it or not we must adopt the new technologies or we will end up like the dinosaurs, extinct. People are already using the net to find out about societies and to contact them by e-mail and to find information about shows and other activities, and therefore if we as an interest are to retain or attract new members we must not ignore this very powerful medium.

One can foresee that in the not too distant future the Council and societies sending newsletters by e-mail, more frequently than at present, and more cheaply. There also needs to be a directory of NZ societies, and this is important, each must have an e-mail contact point. One still comes across organisations listed the web with no means of contacting them, a waste of both time and resources. We all know that the society newsletters contain much excellent material. As part of an 'Orchids in NZ' site the best of these could be published to inform and educate people of what societies can offer, and to attract membership in this country, and to promote orchids nationally and internationally. The net promotes internationalism in orchids, and there is no reason why New Zealand cannot be part of this. 

powwebmaster@ihug.co.nz
Site established 9th May 1998