Welcoming guests to a restaurant begins before they even set foot inside. As more customers first interact with a restaurant on the internet, a restaurant’s web presence has become its virtual maître d’.
Social media tools like Twitter, Facebook and Yelp continue to elevate restaurants’ online presence and build a community of dedicated fans, but maintaining a polished, easy-to-navigate website is still essential for communicating with customers.
“There is a population that is not using Yelp and other tools, and restaurants are missing out if they don’t have a website,” says Kelly Stocker, a community manager for Yelp.com.
When it comes to site design, simplicity and timeliness are key, says Mary Ann Tackett, a designer for Minneapolis-based production company The Nerdery. Including the restaurant’s contact information, address, hours and menu might seem obvious, but Tackett recommends setting up a user-friendly content management system to accommodate quick updates like promotions and new menus.
Restaurant websites that aren’t mobile friendly can be a deal breaker for diners glued to their smartphones. Kevin Sousa, chef-owner of restaurants Salt of the Earth, Union Pig and Chicken, and Station Street Hot Dogs in Pittsburgh, specifically designs his restaurants’ sites for easy navigation on a phone.
Restaurateurs don’t have to be webmasters to have an effective site. In fact, many are steering away from complicated Adobe Flash sites in favor of self-publishing content management systems like WordPress or Drupal, which can be changed easily in-house.
Owner Chris Cusack uses WordPress.com to maintain the website for his Houston-based restaurant, Down House, which includes a bi-monthly blog and photos from Instagram, an online photo-sharing tool.
For diners seeking restaurants that can accommodate special dietary restrictions, websites can be a lifesaver. Robert Mayberry, executive chef for campus dining at the University of Texas, works with staff nutritionists to help code online menus for the seven campus eateries and provide healthy suggestions and nutrition information on the website.
Mayberry has adapted to reach his tech-centric dining segment, using Twitter and kiosks in the dining areas to announce seasonal specials.
Knowing how your customers access information can help determine where to concentrate your marketing efforts.
Social media can drive a significant portion of traffic, but an official restaurant website allows for greater control over content and an optimized presence in online searches.
“If you don’t have a website,” Cusack says, “you are letting other people decide for you what your customers will see.”
Kristi Willis writes about food and technology, sometimes together, from Austin, Texas. She is a regular contributor to Edible Austin magazine and pens two blogs.
Things to know before you take it to the web:
WHAT TO INCLUDE
Contact information: hours, location and address and reservation information, if appropriate.
Current menus, special events and promotions.
The restaurant’s philosophy, staff and links to any media coverage and press contacts.
Links to the restaurant’s social media sites on Twitter, Facebook, Yelp, Open Table, Foursquare or other tools.
Quality photos of the restaurant and its dishes and video to give diners a live tour or show behind-the-scenes footage.
WHAT TO AVOID
Titles or links that aren’t clearly worded.
Music of any kind.
Flash-based sites that won’t display on mobile devices.
Stylized fonts or distracting colors (no blinding rainbows of neon colors, thank you).
Outdated links or sub-pages that can’t be accessed through the main navigation.
Poorly lit or low-quality photos of the food or decor.
Drive potential diners to your website — know the ABCs of SEO (Search Engine Optimization) so that your website content reflects words that diners might use to find you or others like you.
Clue in by visiting google.com for its SEO starter guide.