I know this post is a bit off topic for this blog, but I've seen a bunch of comments on Twitter complaining about various restaurant websites and I think it's time we all have a talk. I've searched and searched and found little to nothing in terms of written guidelines or best practices when it comes to restaurant websites, so no wonder everything is so messed up. Thankfully, most restaurants are simply small businesses, so a simple, static website should cover the essentials.
Web-enabled smartphones (like the iPhone and Blackberry) have changed the game. A large percentage of my frustrations come from badly formatted or poorly programmed sites on my Blackberry. Finding a specific restaurant's address, hours, or menu can sometimes be infuriating. Don't feel bad. Try navigating most e-commerce websites on a Blackberry, and they spend a fortune.
First, let's address the most important question: Do I even need a website?
YES you absolutely need a website
This isn't meant to sound like an ad for a web marketing company, but you really do. Take my example from above: if a user is quickly searching for a specific restaurant, they will type the name of your restaurant into Google, with perhaps the city. For those restaurants without websites, you'll probably get a local city guide site at the top of the list (i.e., Yelp, Citysearch). For those WITH sites, I guarantee you'll be the first one in the Google search list because each and every local city guide will link to your website. With Google, the more links to your site, the higher your ranking.
In my research, I used Textile as an example partly because they redesigned their site a few months back, but also because they did a lot of simple things right. Try typing Textile Restaurant Houston and check the results. Without a site, a user would probably visit Citysearch. Jenny's overview is nice, but it's followed by the three latest reviews, none of them very complimentary. I'm not criticizing Citysearch, but promoting your restaurant is not their top priority. They're not officially representing you, so why let them?
Nobody likes music on a website
Maybe I'm being too harsh. Let me rephrase: sound has a purpose for certain websites. Your website is not one of them. Trust me. There are few things more annoying than coming across a site with blaring music, especially at work. It basically eliminates any doubt as to whether you're working on that spreadsheet or researching a place to eat for the weekend.
List your location, hours, and phone number...
These three elements—along with your menu (more on that later)—are the most important things to include on your site. The Textile site has this information front and center, right under the main navigation (minus their hours; BOO!). Unless your restaurant is ridiculously hard to find, embedded maps aren't necessary. Link to a Google map instead.
...and make sure it's TEXT
When a site is animated in Flash or generated as a fancy graphic, all site content is inaccessible. Smartphone users depend on simple HTML in order to interact with elements such as a phone number. Even better, phone numbers should be tagged as a link in order for an iPhone to see it as clickable. Equally important, Google indexes the content of your site. If it's text, it'll show. As a smartphone user, I can get all the important information without even visiting your site. How cool is that?
Make the title of your site relevant
Each of the pages in your site have a title. It's what displays at the top of your browser bar, and it's also the first line of each Google search result (see Textile Restaurant above). I suggest including the name of your restaurant, the city, and a (very) brief description of your restaurant. For example, Textile Restaurant | Houston, TX | Modern American Cuisine. If your restaurant is trying to market itself as family friendly, go ahead and put that in the title. Google gives the most weight to the title. Putting something descriptive increases your chances of being found by someone searching.
A few months ago, I had a back and forth twitter conversation about the website of RDG, the new Del Grande restaurant in the Galleria. Someone noted that their title included the phrase "Best Restaurant in Houston," a claim so boastful I called it conceited (my exact words). A friend commented that this was most certainly the work of a SEO (search engine optimization) specialist. SEO reminds me of Economics 101, with concepts so ridiculously common sense that it's hard for me to take it seriously. True, this concept initially worked; the new RDG site ranked towards the top of the "Best Restaurants in Houston" search results. This may work for a few visitors on expense accounts, but I never believe self proclaimed bests of anything. Unless this is backed up by an actual award (say, a Houston Press best of award), I'm not biting. So perhaps "conceited" is too strong. I'll go with unnecessarily boastful. Two months later, RDG is stuck in the upper teens of search results, on page two of Google (the equivalent of Siberia).
Include a menu
I think it's important that every restaurant site have some sort of menu, preferably in text format (see above for reasons, they still apply). I know this will probably be difficult for restaurants that regularly change their menus, but there are ways around this. Include a sample menu, especially if it's a tasting menu. PDF menus are annoying for smartphone users, but they're quick and easy, and satisfies the inquisitive wine dork types that research everything. It's a different persona (researcher) than the smartphone user (just the essentials, please).
Don't let your web designer self advertise
You know what this looks like: the designer puts a "designed by..." hyperlink in the footer or a restaurant's website. I'll probably catch some flack for this, but I think it's lame for a design firm to include a link to their home page on your site. It's YOUR site, not a vehicle to deliver them more sales.
Twitter is one of the best ways to promote your restaurant, and it's easy to include a widget on your site that broadcasts your tweets. In Houston, the foodie community is downright fanatical about supporting and following local restaurants. Heck, I follow places I don't even like! Go get a Twitter account, and use it. Start off simply: just tweet your weekend specials. Even better, engage in two way conversations. Best of all, it's free.
Whew. Even though I intentionally left out graphics and photos as topics, this was by far my longest post. There's a lot to digest here, although I'm fairly confident that there's a lot more. Any disagreements? What have I missed?