But then there are the folks who enjoy expanding their horizons and discovering new venues and intriguing new flavors. This crowd is the life blood of any restaurant, especially those still trying to build up a reliable clientele of regulars, because those who enjoy discovering restaurants also enjoy sharing their discoveries. They’re often social (network) butterflies. With a few Instagram pictures and Facebook posts, these brave gastronomical explorers can cause a mass migration to your restaurant’s front doors.

Making Your Restaurant Website Work for You

So, how do you capture those first few customers? To the Internet, Batman!

At this point, even the most technology averse restaurateur has a website for their restaurant. But oftentimes, even the savviest of them overlook some very basic necessities when it comes to building a website that will capture the public’s interest.

It’s been common knowledge in certain circles that as a whole, restaurants tend to have less than optimal websites. Or as a writer on Slate put it a bit more bluntly a few years ago, “Why are restaurant websites so horrifically bad?” The popular web comic The Oatmeal has been even more blunt about the shortcomings of many restaurant websites (be warned, there is some NSFW language).

Thankfully, the vast majority of these issues can be remedied quite easily. But just because they’re easy to implement doesn’t mean they aren’t important. The little things can make a difference between completely tanking and driving away potential customers, and having the awesome first-world problem of not having enough tables and staff to satisfy demand.

A few things can make a huge difference in online (and foot) traffic. Curiously enough, these make-or-break items are the same whether you’re in the restaurant or online.

Menu? Menu? Um… can I get a dinner menu? Waiter!

What customers want: The menu.

Restaurants, you’ve got an advantage over a lot of other businesses. You know what you’re selling.

If you’re selling insurance, how do you get someone on your site in the first place, and then entice them within a few seconds of looking at your page? If you sell sporting goods, what do you put on your front page? Football gear? Baseball? Camping accessories? How do you represent such a broad business with only a narrow selection of what you offer?

For restaurants, it’s pretty obvious what you’re trying to sell. Food. Drinks. Desserts. Regardless of the atmosphere you cultivate or the perks you feature or the $100,000 aquarium that takes up an entire wall of your restaurant, it’s your menu that’s making the dolla’ dolla’ bills, y’all.

And what is the best summary of what a restaurant sells? Conveniently enough, it’s the menu. Every restaurant has a menu. Period. It’s an almost perfect summarization of everything you have to offer. And that’s exactly what gets restaurants into trouble.

What a bad chef sends out: PDFs. Or Adobe Flash.

The majority of restaurants go to the trouble (and expense) of putting together an attractive menu. Your logos are just right. The dishes are described how you want. You may have spent a lot of cash on full color photos of your dishes. It’s a ton of work. So, logically, it doesn’t make sense to reinvent the wheel when it comes to your website. The easiest thing to do is to just throw a PDF of it up on your website. Or maybe even photos or scans of the menu, if you only have printed copies available.

Some really go the extra mile and have their web designer put together a Flash version of the menu for their site that closely mirrors the look of their physical menu.

Either way, what happens is… nobody looks at it.

Why Google (and the customer) complains and sends it back: “Where’s the food?”

There’s a couple reasons for this. Google is capable of indexing some PDFs (meaning, it can read the text in the PDF and can see if a user’s search terms match words in the PDF), but quite often the text in a PDF is just a big graphic, so Google can’t see what it says. Or it’s poorly formatted, so while it looks nice, the text is a mess.  Either way, it would be a bit like posting a picture of your menu, and expecting Google to read what it says.

(And if it’s rendered in Flash, then it almost certainly can’t be seen by Google. Honestly, Flash is bad for your website at this point. Aggressively so. Adobe abandoned the development of Flash for mobile platforms–tablets and phones–more than two years ago. If your site uses Flash, you need to remedy the situation now. Otherwise, you’re actively shutting the door on the more than 50% of Google searches that are conducted via those same mobile platforms.)

So. All the photos in the menu, the descriptions of the dishes, the gluten-free and vegan offerings… Google can’t see it.

This hurts you on a couple of technical levels (i.e. how you rank on Google), and on a customer interaction basis as well.

First of all, Google doesn’t know what’s on your menu, and so it can’t provide that information to people searching for the food you just so happen to serve. Unless you have all of that information repeated elsewhere on your site in text form, your site (and restaurant) won’t be associated with those keywords.

Secondly, unless you have a lot of other articles and information on your website, it’s going to get dinged by Google for having “thin content.” This means that Google will actively push you down in the search rankings, because it feels that there isn’t enough information on your site to make it useful to anybody.

And then there’s the user issue with PDFs: they are absolutely, positively not mobile friendly. There isn’t a phone on the planet that can do justice to your gorgeous 17 inch by 11 inch menu pages with everything written in cursive. Phone screens are a lot tinier than your typical menu. So your potential patron gets to choose between two inconveniences. If they zoom out so they can see the entire page, they won’t be able to read anything, because everything will be microscopic. Or they can zoom in and scroll around the page, like they’re reading a book through a peephole.

Lastly, Google is well aware of the fact that PDFs are inconvenient for phone users. And if you’re using PDFs, your site probably has other non-mobile-friendly features as well. So Google is gonna end up dinging you in the search rankings again, because they don’t want to frustrate their users by sending them to clunky sites.

So to sum it up, PDFs can hurt your search rankings three different ways because (1) Google often can’t read them very well, so it can’t index them for search purposes, (2) Google penalizes you for not having much content elsewhere on the site, and (3) Google penalizes you again for not making your site easy for people to look at on their phones.

How to make the customer happy: List your menu items on your site.

Thankfully, there is a wonderfully simple solution to this: List all of your menu items in plain text on your site. It won’t look as pretty as it does on your physical menu, but Google and your patrons will love you for it, because they can read every word. Even on an iPhone. It’s really that simple.

A number of restaurants fall into the PDF trap because their menus change a lot. It’s easier for them to just upload new PDFs every time something changes, rather than having to sit down and spend time updating their site.

But as we’ve seen, doing it the right way is worth the effort. There are ways to make it easier on yourself. If you break your menu up into sections on separate pages (appetizers, entrees, specials, wines), you can hone in on the section(s) that needs to be updated. Additionally, if you build your site using a CMS system like WordPress or Joomla!, it’s barely more complicated than editing a Word document. And if you rotate through a number of fixed menus—seasonal offerings or special events you do every year—you can pull that part of the menu from your website, but have it saved and ready to publish next year.

How to earn that Michelin star: Go into detail about your menu items!

Now, if you break your menu apart across multiple pages of your website, you need to make sure that each page has at least around 300 words of content. The reason for this is because Google likes descriptive pages (remember the “thin content” issue described above)? Chances are, each section of your menu isn’t 300 words long. So we’ve created a little problem for ourselves. We don’t have enough content for our menu (website) pages.

BUT, this is actually a fantastic opportunity for you and your business. On a physical menu, you have to work within a limited space. This may mean paring down descriptions of entrees, removing photos of dishes, or not describing the wine list in the detail it deserves. But you don’t have this issue with an online version. This can be your opportunity to create the Director’s Cut of your menu. Be descriptive about the ingredients, where they’re sourced from, how certain meals are prepared. Think about the most educated and discerning customers you’ve served. What are the details that would sell them on a dish, that don’t typically fit on a menu? This is where you talk about them. It will entice customers, gives Google more to chew on, and provides more search terms that could lead visitors to your site. This is an awesome chance to really communicate what makes your dishes special.

A couple years ago, some were saying that Twitter had conditioned people to hate content over 140 characters, and so to keep text descriptions to a minimum. But Penguin, Hummingbird et. al. have changed the game. Be descriptive, as long as it serves a practical purpose.

This 2 megabyte blurry smartphone photo of a hamburger is awesome,” said nobody ever.

What customers want: Attractive, clear visual representations of your food, that load quickly. 

When it comes down to it, humans are pretty primitive creatures. If you show us a photo of something that looks a lot like something that tastes good, we’ll want to eat it. The little lizard brain at the back of our heads is about a half-step above your cat swatting at mice on an iPad screen. It’s the reason why I can’t start eating dinner until my girlfriend has taken a photo of the food on my plate, and half the TVs on the planet are stuck on the Food Network all day.

What a bad chef sends out: Photos that don’t represent the product well and eat up valuable time.

Photos are just a means of communication, like the words we speak and write. If the communication is inefficient, there’s no point. You don’t have to have photos of the food you serve on your site. There are plenty of successful restaurants whose sites don’t feature a single photo of their food.

But if your food needs a visual depiction to really speak for itself, that’s fine. Again, this is why people ogle food online and on TV. But if the photos are poorly done, then you’ve done a disservice to the quality of your food. And if the photos are poorly compressed, then you’ve slowed your site down and made the user experience additional frustration as well.

How to make the customer happy: If you’re going to use photos to sell a product, do an excellent job of it.

The photos should be done professionally. Getting a decent photographer can be pricey, but that’s where you have to decide if it’s worth the investment or not. If you truly believe that those photos will make the difference in getting people in the door, then it’s absolutely worth it to spend a few hundred bucks to hire someone to spend a few hours photographing your food (and restaurant).

Another important component to keep in mind – your photographer should know how to shoot for the web. It’s one thing to use 50 megabyte RAW files for print work, but it’s another to put together images that will look enticing, and be professionally, carefully compressed so that they load up on a phone quickly. It takes talent, but if you’re willing to pay for it, the payoff can be fantastic.

How to earn that Michelin star: Keywords count in file names, too.

If you choose to incorporate photos into your site, make sure you create descriptive file names for the images. Google indexes that information as well. If it’s a photo of your special gnocchi, don’t leave the file name as IMG034.jpg. Name that file gnocchi-ricotta-cheese-charred-broccoli-mushrooms-truffle-butter.jpg. It may well be a combination of words buried in a photo’s file name that leads someone to your site via Google.

I’ve had photos make the front page of national Google search results because of descriptive, unique file names.

Give me your hours, your address, and your number! (And your wallet.)

What customers want: Fast service.

People tend to have a pretty limited set of needs when they visit a restaurant’s website, especially when they aren’t familiar with the restaurant. If they aren’t looking at the menu, then they’re trying to (a) call you, (b) find you, or (c) figure out when they can call or find you. Those expectations are very predictable. That’s why Google makes a point of providing the address, number, (and sometimes the hours) of local businesses.

What a bad chef sends out: Anything and everything but the desired information.

People are incredibly impatient. They want it, and they want it now. When people get impatient with something, they lose interest and walk away. The internet has only encouraged this impatience for satisfaction, and the subsequent loss of interest. When you get bored with a site, you close it and move on to the next thing.

Have you ever seen the reception area in a restaurant where the staff doesn’t clue the patrons in on what they should do? If there’s isn’t someone waiting to take them to a table, or a basket of menus with a sign saying to take a seat, people just kinda… wander. And if the restaurant is on a busy street with a lot of other restaurants, sometimes those people wander right out the door.

Numbers vary, but a good rule of thumb is that you have about ten to fifteen seconds to direct a site visitor to exactly what they want. And that’s from when they first click on your link–not from when your site finishes loading.

However, restauranteurs who care about their food also tend to care about their restaurant, naturally. They care about the feel, the message, the feng shui, the lighting… everything. And so they want their websites to accurately reflect these difficult-to-quantify details. This often results in websites that have flashy intro sequences (or actual Flash intro sequences), videos, background music, complicated navigation systems, mission statements, chef and owner biographies, virtual tours of the restaurant, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

The more stuff you stuff in there, the longer someone has to wait to get what they actually want. It’s like not serving drinks or appetizers until the main course comes out. Your customers will have long since split. If you get them into your restaurant and they love your food, then they’ll be compelled to peruse your site at length. But not until then.

How to make the customer happy: Give them what they want, quickly. Then you can give them what you want.

Restaurant name, address, phone number, and hours. And links to your menu(s). Stick them right at the top of the website, or somewhere they’ll be readily apparent. And in plain text, so they can either copy and paste the needed info, or just tap on your phone number to dial it (a feature many phones support).

Also, make sure to make the links to your menu (that menu we discussed at length earlier) are obvious and easy to find.

How to get that Michelin star: Make all the important stuff accessible within a single click and a few seconds.

Remember that ten to fifteen second window you have to engage a customer’s interest? If you really want to get that customer in the door, they should be able to find whatever information they want within ten seconds of clicking on a link to your homepage.

This recipe requires a few ingredients to make sure it turns out right:

  • Your site needs to have a mobile version. We sometimes call this a “responsive” site, because it adapts itself to suit whatever browsing device somebody uses. This is non-negotiable. Every site we build is mobile-friendly. We’re at the point where more users (and money) are focusing on mobile searches than they are on desktop searches. Your mobile site isn’t a sideshow; now it’s the main feature.
  • The site has to load extremely quickly. Keep images and other fancy stuff (no Flash!) on the main page to a minimum. From the moment they click that link on Google, the clock’s running.
  • Data from 2011 indicates that 16% of mobile users would abandon a page if they had to wait between 1 and 5 seconds for it to load, and 40% of desktop users would leave if it took more than 3 seconds. I promise you, widespread access to broadband internet and mobile 4G in the years since hasn’t made people more patient. Get your load time under 2 seconds on any platform.
  • As discussed above, make your contact information very readily accessible. Bonus points if you take the time to make sure that your information is up to date on Google, Bing, Yelp, Facebook, and so on.
  • Very simple, well-labeled navigation elements. A new user shouldn’t have to work through a learning curve to figure out that the little out-of-the-way graphic that looks like a covered dish is actually a link to your reservation system.
  • Make sure that the most important pages (Your food menu! Your drinks menu! Your specials!) are just a kiss click away. They should have place of pride on your site’s navigation system.

Focus on your strengths.

“Keeping up with the Joneses” is even more rampant online than it is in your neighborhood. Many, many clients want to incorporate innumerable features into their sites, but not because they have a vision for utilizing them well. Rather, they want those features because everybody else has them too: popups advertising your email newsletter, live (or automated) chat with site visitors, blogs, Twitter feeds, or… ugh… specialized mobile apps (I tend to get pretty throat-punchy when a restaurant or news site redirects me from the page I was looking at so it could flog its shiny new mobile app).

Look at it this way: if you were running a sushi restaurant, would you offer fried chicken on the menu, just because fried chicken is popular? Of course not, because it doesn’t cater to your strengths or interests. In the same way, if you don’t have a strong, purposeful desire to utilize a feature to its potential, then don’t use it at all.

Do what you love, and do it well. If you’ve been dreaming of doing a food blog for your restaurant, then jump on it, because chances are you’ll do a great job of it. Cook what you want to cook, and communicate with your customers in the way that you want to. That really is the tl;dr of this whole blog post: do only what you’ll do well. And only if it will make your clients happy. If you do all of the above, you’re golden, and you’ll be running a vast chain of restaurants in no time.

As long as your food’s good, of course.

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