Monday, November 30, 2009

Restaurant Websites: Stop the Madness

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?

Textile result in Google on my Blackberry

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.

The "best" restaurant in Houston?

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.

Use Twitter!

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?


  1. AMEN to all of that sir!

    - dont use flash for your WHOLE website. some parts, like page heads? ok, if you must. but not the value parts. in addition to the smartphone thing, its just so "last year" looking

    - menu, menu, MENU!!! a downloadable pdf is great but its way more handy for a quick read to have it on the page as html.

    - update, update, update! i dont want to have to call the place to verify the current menu. beavers is a HUGE offender of this one...

    - dont rely on facebook as your web presence. thats just lazy.

    - "site designed by" there is a place for this. its called the links page.

  2. YES. "Site designed by" always screams "clueless" to me, and given the low quality of most sites that have that tag, I don't think the web designers are doing themselves any favors.

    I have a very hard time finding many restaurant web sites via Google - most are crowded out by Yelp, CitySearch, etc., which is amazingly unhelpful if you want to find things like hours and menus. (I am one of those curmudgeons who finds Yelp reviews amazingly unhelpful; for places I know, I find the reviews utterly inaccurate, and ultimately, I don't know who these people are, I don't know their tastes, and I don't care what they think - I'd rather read a review by someone I know, or by a professional.)

    A quick way around this: sign up for Google Adwords and just run ads on your name, and in the copy say something about what you serve and point what's on the site. ("Thai food, see our menu, take out and delivery available.") This will be very helpful for those who want basic info if you're not ranking in the top 5, and probably will cost very little if the campaign is restricted to the local area.

  3. Yeah, sorry...there is nothing wrong with "designed By", providing it's small, tasteful, and at the very very bottom. Because, even though 90% of the time sites that do this are ugly, if I visit a very nice site, I want to know who designed it. Most designers rely on this kind of word of mouth advertising to generate business.

    Otherwise, yes, your suggestions are great, and mostly spot on.

    And really, having a dedicated 'links' page on a site that is not a blog, is far more tacky, not to mention potentially detrimental to page ranking. It can look cheap and desperate, and to google, can look like a link farm just to generate some credibility.

  4. I spend several hours each day looking at restaurant websites. It's my job. I wish EVERY chef/owner/CEO would read this piece and take it to heart.

  5. nice post... my pet peeve is when restaurants dont post prices on the menu. I usually assume if they dont post prices, then it must be REALLY expensive..

  6. This past Monday, I didn't go to a restaurant because its website was mostly Flash and I couldn't tell from my iPhone whether it would be open. I was being a little paranoid because the day before, I showed up at a restaurant that was closed because its website seemed to say it would be open—you can be sure this earned that place no good will from me. So the recommendation about posting the basics front and center in plain text is right on.

  7. I completely agree with everything you've said, especially the parts about Flash and music! Hahahah according to your points, I'd have to say that one of the worst offenders is Catalan and one of the best sites would be Feast (although they could move their hours closer to the address and number). I wish more places would keep their menus up to date and post specials like Feast does. At the very least, tweet the specials because I promise that could make the difference on whether or not I decided to go somewhere.

  8. I found this article very interesting from my perspective of working as a chef in the Houston market for 10 years and now running my own I.T. and web design business.

    I agree with most of your points, usability is very important in design however your entire article was written from the perspective of a blackberry user and I'll bet if you look at the analytics of almost any site you will find that blackberry browsers make up less than 5% of unique visitors.

    But still websites needs to be accessible and deliver the content the user needs like hours, phone number, address etc.. A good designer can still do "fancy graphics" and make the site accessible, its called CSS and is a file separate from the content that dictates the style elements. And of course all images and links need to contain alt tags so if your browser can't show the image it shows the alt text instead.

    Flash should not be used except for maybe photo slide shows and for playing video. If you must use flash the proper way to do it is by using JQuery SwfObject which is a small script that detects the browser and if no flash is available it displays alternate text or html. It is the only method of using flash and having the code validate.

    I don't think you need to have all your menus on your site. Maybe put some highlights, seasonal items and specials as long as you keep it up to date.

    A simple site by link is fine as long as they don't stand out.

    As a quick test I went to the sites of my favorite Houston restaurants just to see the quality of their sites.

    Reef which is my favorite has the best site out of all the ones I visited. Hours, phone number, address all on the front page along with email links for the chef and the managers. It is a very well designed site and contains great content. It also has a design by link in the footer.

    Marks, another favorite of mine, did not score so well. Flash intro page is so out dated and really serves no purpose. Also when you click the home link it takes you back to the flash intro. I expected more from Chef Mark.

    Beaver's has a really cool fun site with an out of the box design but a little hard to navigate and I imagine it would be frustrating from a blackberry.

    T'afia has a site similar to Beaver's that is very unique and fits Monica's style but the navigation is really bad. Each page has a hard to find link back to the home page and that's it. She does however get bonus points for tweeting about her up coming menu's and specials.

    I looked at RDG and I really expected more from such a big name celebrity chef. I absolutely had menu's as a pdf download. It makes absolutely no sense and is horrible for seo. And that title tag is a real turnoff.

    Now I have to defend the independent restaurateurs, it's a very hard business with a tiny profit margin. They work hideously long hours just making sure the place runs smoothly and the customers are taken care of. Often they will spend the money on a good site and then not update it for a few years because they just don't think about it or can't justify the expense (which is wrong because a good website will increase revenue.

    I really like this blog I am glad I found it. Keep up the good work.

    Chris Olbekson
    C3M Digital Web Solutions

  9. I'll disagree with id regarding the menu--the point of the menu isn't just to find out the type of food served or recommendations, but also to help gauge how much one might spend there. You should have the entire menu available, even if you also have highlights.

    Moving onwards, I continually find it a shock that Poscol doesn't have a website and the Marco Wiles restaurants (Da Marco, Dolce Vita) have terrible websites in general. I think he'd ideally have a landing page that links to his restaurants.

    Also, whether or not you use (I really like when restaurants do), there would ideally always be a link for reservations if you take reservations.

    On the other hand, I like that Feast uses Google for a free website--great way to save some money. But, it's not a great website. I love that they have so much information available and it's continually updated, but they need to consider using multiple pages.

  10. I agree completely with the sentiment on Flash. A Flash movie served over HTTP does not and cannot replace a standard HTML Web site. In addition to the hostility towards free software users (free as in freedom, FSF definition), it is usually not so easy to do simple things like resize the text or copy and paste the address onto a mapping site.

    While I can see the argument for not letting a Web design firm include a backlink, I disagree. It's about the only thing I really disagree with in the entire post. As long as it's tasteful and demure I don't mind seeing a backlink to the designer.