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The Evolution of the American Botanical Council Website: 1995 – 2021

By Gayle Engels

In January 2021, the American Botanical Council (ABC) launched a revised and redesigned version of its website, www.herbalgram.org. The new website is mobile friendly, with improved navigation, a modern design, enhanced graphics, additional development capabilities, and a more intuitive user experience for site visitors and ABC staff who add content to the site. It has been 25 years since ABC introduced its first website, and the process of improving the site will continue for years to come as the digital landscape continues to evolve.

Then

ABC developed its first website in 1995, just two years after the European Council for Nuclear Research (CERN) released the World Wide Web software to the public domain and announced that “the web” was free for everyone to use and develop.1

ABC website in 1997In the beginning, the ABC website was very basic. Users could find ABC’s contact information and request additional details about books, HerbalGram, and ABC’s ethnobotanical ecotours. The “Content” section included an HerbalGram page with information on legal and regulatory news, medicinal plant research, and profiles on herbs and herbalists, along with ABC’s mission statement, educational and research projects, book reviews, and how to order from the ABC “Bookstore” (including “Back Packs” of past HerbalGram issues and indices). Online ordering was uncommon at the time, so HerbalGram subscriptions and the hundreds of books and other educational items in ABC’s Herbal Education Catalog were available to order by phone, fax, or US mail only. Websites for organizations of ABC’s size were so new and rare that an article in HerbalGram issue 35 gave instructions for how to access the web.

Shortly after the website launched, ABC hired a webmaster, Trey Bennett, who oversaw regular updates of content on the site, including selected herb monographs, ABC-developed accredited continuing education programs for health care professionals, links to related sites, and information about ABC’s new home at the historic 2.5-acre Case Mill Homestead in Austin, Texas. In early 2000, Netscape’s “Web Site Garage” had awarded “American Botanical Council Online” an Excellent Diagnosis, its highest award, for the site’s browser compatibility, load time, popularity, and HTML (hypertext markup language, the standard website programming language) design, among other technical criteria. 

By 2000, the technology had developed so that ABC was able to offer what was then considered secure online ordering. The complete 32-page Herbal Education Catalog was added to the website and included more than 300 books, herbal videos, software, ABC’s 14 Botanical Booklets on individual herbs, third-party literature, American Herbal Pharmacopoeia monographs, special reports and publications, a CD-ROM of 102 medicinal plant photographs by noted photographer and author Steven Foster, and subscriptions to and back issues of HerbalGram.

In addition to offering online ordering, the site had grown to include sample content from HerbalGram, HerbClip (scientific and clinical article summaries and reviews), ABC’s first two books — The Complete German Commission E Monographs and Herbal Medicine: Expanded Commission E Monographs — and the Botanical Booklet series. The site also included the first iteration of ABC’s “Educational Links” pages with hundreds of links to other sites that covered topics such as consumer information, family health, professional organizations, and more.

However, ABC was not yet able to put full content from HerbalGram, HerbClip, and its other publications online. While content management systems (CMSs) were available as early as 1995, open-source CMSs and content management frameworks (CMFs) were not widely available until the early 2000s. Realizing the increasing importance of its online presence, ABC contracted with Interactive Ensemble (IE), an Austin, Texas-based web design and development company, to create a new website using a CMS designed by IE that allowed staff to monitor and update dynamic content (i.e., content that is added regularly). The new site launched in summer 2001 and had an enhanced design that allowed for easier viewing and speedier navigation. As ABC had become a membership-based organization in January 2001, the website also featured a login option that allowed members to access password-protected materials based on their membership level.

In August 2001, ABC’s new website earned another honor for its content and design. It was one of six “Complementary and Alternative ABC website in 2012Therapies” websites recommended in The Nurses’ Guide to Consumer Health Websites (Springer Publishing Company, 2001). The guide featured 40 categories of consumer-friendly websites with high-quality content that were chosen by nurses with relevant expertise.2

In autumn 2006, ABC contracted with Convio (now called Blackbaud, Inc.), a leading software company specializing in internet marketing solutions for nonprofit organizations. Convio’s Luminate Online software provided improved security for online membership and book sales, improved e-commerce tools, a constituent management option, and a platform for email campaigns, newsletters, and other outreach efforts.

ABC also needed a new, advanced CMS because of the ongoing increase in ABC’s dynamic content and the addition of HerbMedPro, a comprehensive, interactive online database that provides access to important scientific and clinical research data on the uses and health effects of more than 265 herbs, spices, medicinal plants, and fungi. In late 2007, ABC’s IT consultant Eric Valdez (Corsair USA, LLC; Austin, Texas) contracted with a web developer (KYUBE/Simplify) to design a new CMS and website to ABC’s specifications. The updated website launched in July 2008, taking ABC’s content, site navigation, and other online capabilities to the next level. The CMS served ABC well for 10 years until, after a series of technical issues that affected the website’s functionality, ABC management and the Board of Trustees prioritized the creation of a new, mobile-responsive site.

Now

In June 2018, Valdez again contracted with a web developer (Capella Solutions; Houston, Texas) to help ABC address site functionality, adapt an open-source CMS called Umbraco to ABC’s needs, design a site that would be responsive across mobile devices, and clean up and migrate the website’s vast content. Due to the site functionality issues, the large amount of content on the site, and ABC’s commitment to accuracy and excellence, it took longer than expected to design, test, and implement the new CMS and website. ABC management decided to launch the new site in January 2021, despite some remaining tasks.

Features of the New ABC website

While the design team continues to improve the responsiveness of the site, users can now view ABC’s website on most mobile devices, and the site automatically adapts to the size of the screen. The navigation of the site is intuitive regardless of the device being used.

ABC content is now found in a drop-down navigation menu at the top of the page and in a mega-menu that appears at the bottom of pages. While the previous website was considered state of the art when it was launched in 2008 (the year after Apple introduced the iPhone), the layout became less practical over the years. The new design and supporting CMS address this issue, and previously hard-to-find items are now prominently displayed.

The ABC website has more than 62,500 distinct pages in 11 resource sections, most of which are updated on a regular basis. ABC’s HerbMedPro database alone, which is updated weekly, contains more than 132,000 entries. A website of this size and complexity needs a powerful search engine with full-text search capability. The search function on ABC’s new site is a customized (and customizable), elastic search that works via an index of the content and “learns” from users’ searches to provide tailored results based on previous searches. It can autocomplete searches, if users allow it, or provide a search suggestion, which can be helpful when users are unfamiliar with the spelling of an author or herb name, for example. The search results default to the most relevant results (those that include the search terms the most) but can be filtered by resources (HerbalGram, HerbClip, etc.), and chronologically, with the newest results at the top of the list.

The new website layout is designed to be more visually appealing and easier to read, due to its cleaner format. It also allows for more graphics to accompany the text. ABC staff expects to add more of Foster’s compelling medicinal plant photographs over the coming months.

ABC’s new CMS is state of the art and enables application programming interface (API) software to seamlessly connect with customer relationship management (CRM), bulk email, and e-commerce tools. The site now has the infrastructure to deploy specialized mobile applications and globally syndicated searchable content to numerous licensees and university and other libraries. Finally, the new CMS is much more intuitive and user friendly. This will make adding content to ABC’s website much easier for staff and contractors.

The Future

The web design team expects to finish outstanding tasks on the new site by spring 2021. After that, they will begin work on the next phase of ABC’s web development project, which includes:

  • As part of the 10th anniversary of the Botanical Adulterants Prevention Program (BAPP), the BAPP section of ABC’s site will be updated to include new content sections. Functionality will be added later to help users more easily find content within these sections, including upcoming publications.
  • Reflecting ABC’s stewardship of the Sustainable Herbs Program (SHP), the SHP site will be moved to the new Umbraco platform to make it easier to maintain and add new educational content.
  • To improve functionality of the national HerbDay website, which ABC has been managing since 2008, www.HerbDay.org will also be moved to the Umbraco platform.

ABC staff hopes that members and other site visitors find the new website to be a pleasant, improved experience. User comments, questions, and suggestions can be submitted at webmaster@herbalgram.org.

References

  1. The birth of the web. CERN website. Available at: https://home.cern/science/computing/birth-web. Accessed November 24, 2020.
  2. Engels G. ABC website redesigned to accommodate member access, new research. HerbalGram. 2001;53:9. Available at: https://herbalgram.org/resources/herbalgram/issues/53/table-of-contents/article2397/. Accessed December 13, 2020.
References