The Restaurant Website and Why So Many Get It Wrong

The Saga of the Restaurant Website

Before we begin the saga of the restaurant website, let’s make an assumption that this applies to many different types of eating and drinking establishments that we’ll loosely categorize under the restaurant umbrella — call it, eatery, bar, cafe, coffee shop, ice cream parlor, all-you-can-eat buffet, or home cooking kitchen. Basically, I’m saying businesses who serve food and drink to the public.

In my relatively small town of Savannah, there are over 900 eating and drinking establishments that report annual revenue of over $500,000. If you look at every registered business in the eating and drinking establishment NAICS category, regardless of revenue, the number is closer to 10,000. Most of these are the small mom and pop shops. I know that Savannah is an eating and drinking town, but that’s a lot of food and drink for a greater-area population of 380,000 — give or take. This implies that there are many tourists who patronize our local restaurants and bars.

So, it still fascinates me that so many of these businesses have such great food or drink products to offer, yet they are missing an incredible opportunity to market that product effectively (see Why Your Website Should Be Better). Clearly, the reason so many establishments can make their way in a city this size is because of the ginormous influx of tourists, many who don’t know where to go without turning to Google. As a result, a handful of smart operators are getting the lion’s share of business from hungry travelers. Is this because culinary-savvy proprietors are great at food but bad at digital marketing? If that’s the case, there’s a pretty easy fix.

Starting With the Basics

Websites for eating and drinking establishments need not be complicated nor overthought. A good restaurant website should effectively be a billboard that has a beautiful visual design, or at least one representing the character of the business. In other words, your business should be represented in its best and most authentic light through typography, images and design, and maybe other media like video if appropriate. The basic structure could almost be repeated for every restaurant in, well, the world.

If I’m lucky enough to locate the website of a restaurant in Google’s search results, there is a minimum list of attributes I would expect to find:

  1. The location, the hours of operation, and a phone number in case I have questions (which I shouldn’t if the website does its job).
  2. Some great imagery of the place — inside and outside — to give me an idea of what it “feels” like to be there. You know, the vibe.
  3. A menu — this doesn’t mean a bad photo taken by a patron and posted on your Facebook site. I want a very legible menu in plain view with current prices and preferably daily specials.
  4. A mobile-ready (responsive) site, because more than half of your prospects and customers are looking for you using their phone. By the way, this is not last on the list because it’s of least importance.

That’s it! That is all it takes to be minimally sufficient on your restaurant website, yet so many miss the mark. How many times have you visited a website for a restaurant and there is no menu to be found? Or, there is a link to Zmenu with a glared photo of a tattered menu you can’t read. I’m certainly not going to name names, but there are more than I care to count.

Facebook Is Not Your Website

This is another pet peeve. Some really good restaurants have decided to turn their brand over to Facebook. I search for the restaurant online and click the link — straight to an ill-managed Facebook Business Page. This is so wrong for so many reasons. While Facebook should be an important part of your digital strategy, it should never be the core content management site for your online presence. You effectively give up all of your rights when it comes to controlling your marketing strategy and decide to work within the limited confines of Facebook. One thing is for sure — Facebook will love you because your brand will never be the primary brand when people visit your page. Facebook will always be front and center.

When it comes to organic search, you are conceding control to Facebook regarding the rank and appearance in Google’s search results, you know those precious but pesky SERPs. Facebook may get you ranking depending on many factors, but you will have little-to-zero control over that. As one of the most important factors in your digital strategy, shouldn’t you control how your business is showing up? I think so. I surely don’t want Facebook deciding that, because Facebook takes care of Facebook first.

The bottom line is you need a website hosted on a domain that represents your brand, where you control all content, SEO, and the ability to engage your customers and prospects. Don’t leave this one to chance.

Going Beyond the Minimum

Now you have a decent website representing your brand, a complete menu, and some information on the business to help consumers find it and contact you. How do you get from this point to top performance? Let’s start with something so important that it should be on the basic list, but it does require extra effort and patience — that is, SEO.

A website without good SEO implementation is like a car without wheels — it will just sit there. I’m surprised every day by businesses from all walks that miss this. SEO, or Search Engine Optimization, is an intentional process that optimizes the content on your site so Google (and other search engines) can find it.

Part science and part art, SEO is implemented over time. In theory, it never ends. Google is ever-changing and you will be forever be competing for customers and better search ranking. It is possible to short-circuit organic search and pay for ads online to get immediate visibility. Paid search is a viable part on online advertising and not all bad, but will never return the benefits of a good SEO strategy over the long haul.

Second, somewhat related to SEO is content. You may have put up your billboard (your website) that statically represents your business — visual media, menu, who you are, where you are, and what you’re about. But, people expect to see signs of life on your website. Everyone has heard of a blog so I won’t explain. The point is, creating ongoing content related to your business — stories, anecdotes, recipes, event recaps, whatever — will give your website the life it needs to keep your customers and the search engines happy. I can hear you now saying, “I barely have enough hours in the week to run my business. How do you expect me to write regular content?” Heard it a thousand times. It doesn’t have to be literature. Maybe you have an employee who is passionate about writing. I can even help you with content as part of our ongoing support. It’s not debatable as to whether you need it. It’s a matter of, will you go the extra mile to get maximum return from your online presence?

Last, websites are not one-and-done appliances. You should think of your website as the window into the soul of your business because people are much more likely to visit you there to try and glean something about you before they walk through the door. It’s been proven that if they don’t like what they find — an acceptable standard — they’ll just move on. If they find you and can’t access the site effectively on a mobile device, they’ll move on. And, if they can’t find you at all, guess what? No explanation needed.

There are many other ways to achieve greatness online. Whether you integrate a reservation backend like OpenTable, or tightly integrate your social media sites with your website, or broadcasting live events right on the site, the sky is the limit.

In Closing

The reason for this post was not to talk about potential, or what CAN be done online. The point is that it’s pretty easy to be at a minimally acceptable level of online quality, yet many aren’t. Some of my favorite restaurants in Savannah have really crappy websites, so I think that proves that good food and good digital strategy are not connected. But I’ve lived here forever so I am already in the know. What bothers me so much is that I want all of the tourists who visit Savannah to experience what I get to experience every day. And, I want Savannah businesses to reap those rewards. But, not only do many of these great restaurants have no chance of being found online — many who find them will never show up because the website does nothing to attract them.

Your online presence represents who you are, whether you like it or not. You can point to good reviews on Yelp or Google — and that’s a good thing — but you are missing a larger part of growth. I’ve never met a restaurant owner who said: we’re done, please tell people to stop coming to my restaurant. Of course you would want people to find you and you should want your website to pull them in like a magnet. But, perception is the only thing you can count on. Consumers will judge your business based on the way they perceive your website, even if they know nothing about you.

If you’re not sure which step to take first, call us at 912-388-1440 or contact us here, to have a conversation. It’s very likely that you’re not as far from being sufficient as you think, and you may not be that far from greatness. At the very least we may be able to offer an idea or two.

Oh, and one last thing. No website or digital strategy overcomes bad food or service, So before you take the steps to draw the masses to your door, be ready to wow them.