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How Restaurant Web Sites Miss the Mark

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October 01, 2002
Web Site Do's and Don'ts
Marcelo Ziperovich - marceloz@imagistic.com

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© 2002 Hospitality Upgrade. No reproduction without written permission.

In this rough-and-tumble-sky’s-the-limit medium that has come to be known as the Internet, there is as much room for mistake and misstep as there is for success. One industry that seems particularly vulnerable to these lapses in good Web judgment is the restaurant segment. This article will attempt to bring to light some of the basic errors and omissions many restaurants make.

It doesn’t take an MBA to know that if your customers can’t find you, your business isn’t going to do well. It’s vital that you cover all the bases here. After all, most people go to the Web looking for a specific piece of information and when they can’t find it, everyone loses. First thing, make sure you have the right URL. Your restaurant’s name is a good start, but don’t stop there. Consider tying in common misspellings, typically associated nicknames and abbreviations, and, for the more daring, relevant phrases or terms. Burger King (http://www.burgerking.com) gets it right on this one. Typing in the proper name gets you to the Web site, but so do http://www.bk.com, http://www.whopper.com, and http://www.haveityourway.com. Not only does this give consumers multiple entry points but it will also give you the flexibility to use specific URLs for promotions or special campaigns.

The other side of being visible online is covering your online marketing basics. Are your site’s metatags and content descriptions well thought out and implemented properly? There are rules for making sure metatags are spidered by the various search engines, and following those rules is the only way to take full advantage of the Internet’s inherent phone book capabilities. If you don’t understand those rules yourself, hire an established, reputable Web developer or online marketing firm to help you. It’s money well spent.

So now that your customers have found you online, you have to get them through your doors. Having an easy-to-use and informative location finder on the site is critical. Never skimp on usability or information. The most effective location finders include hours, phone numbers, addresses, driving directions, manager names and other location-specific information such as parking instructions. Check out the California Pizza Kitchen Web site (http://www.cpk.com) to see an interactive location finder that makes it easy to zero in on one of its hundreds of locations and find store-specific details.

If the three most important things in the real estate game are location, location, location, then the restaurant equivalent has to be presentation, presentation, presentation. It is amazing how many restaurant sites are just plain unappetizing, the site doesn’t entice potential customers to step foot in your real-world location.

Well designed and over designed are not the same. Keep it simple so the look doesn’t distract from the content, and remove the barriers that keep users from getting the information they want. You know that cool Flash animation that plays when you load the homepage but really serves no other purpose than increasing the amount of time a user has to wait? Get rid of it. International House of Pancakes (http://www.ihop.com) features a download when users first enter the site, and although optional, it really serves only as a commercial. The same information could have been relayed within the context of the site without slowing a person’s entry. Take the time to make your navigation clear, and make sure the most useful and sought-after information is only one click away – this is particularly true for features like location and menu. The Morton’s of Chicago Web site (http://www.mortons.com) illustrates a good example of straightforward, direct navigation.

Keeping the above in mind, be true to your brand so that your online image reflects and supports your in-store sensibility. The look and display quality of your site is no less important than the look and display quality of your menu, your packaging or your interior design. The Web sites for Baja Fresh (http://www.bajafresh.com) and Jerry’s Famous Deli (http://www.jerrysfamousdeli.com), although information-rich, feel slapped together and amateurish. This is a shame since it contradicts the clean and efficient nature of these chain’s field locations. Please use well-shot and high quality photographs that actually look tasty, and stay away from stock library photography because you won’t fool anyone with it. Spend enough time and money to make sure your site is professionally designed, and that all of its features work across the required browser spectrum. Buca di Beppo (http://www.bucadibeppo.com) and Ruby’s (http://www.rubys.com) do an excellent job of translating their offline brands, styles and personalities to the online world.

Now let’s talk about menus. After the location finder, the menu area of a restaurant site typically gets the most traffic. This is good. However, if your menu is uninformative, unorganized or just plain sloppy, that is bad. Come up with smart categories for various food types, and make sure the menu looks appetizing by designing it well. Denny’s (http://www.dennys.com) serves up a solid online menu with descriptions and good photos. By not offering photos, descriptions or a compelling layout, the Long John Silver’s (http://www.ljsilvers.com) menu section does about the bare minimum. Remember to include downloadable or printable menus, and give people what they really seem to be interested in these days: nutritional information. Carl’s Junior (http://www.carlsjr.com/home) does a notable job when it comes to nutritional information. A simple application allows users to create a virtual meal, which, once submitted, presents a complete nutritional breakdown of that meal. You could also consider using this section to suggest thoughtful alternatives for diet-restricted users.

A Web site is a 24/7 location. It’s a customer service, human resource, sales and public relations representative all neatly wrapped into one silicon business suit. The bottom line is this: Your Web site can increase your bottom line. One obvious example is to make gift certificates and other merchandise available for purchase online. Another is to allow online job position searches and submission of employment applications, which streamlines the process and increases efficiencies. If you want to take a significant step, let your guests order from the Web site. But be forewarned, this will require a substantial investment in technical and operational infrastructure. If you aren’t ready for that step, at least create an easy way for large groups to organize and place their take-out orders, even if it’s just a simple print out that they can fax to the nearest location. Think of other ways to use this invaluable outlet to ease and supplement your real world staff.

From a PR standpoint, use your site to tell the story and engage users. Besides the usual press releases, offer articles about or related to the restaurant; provide a means by which customers can submit a complaint or suggestion; and offer recipes or other branded content that will keep your restaurant’s name and image up front in the user’s mind. The Red Lobster site (http://www.redlobster.com) has a nice feature that allows users to evaluate and give feedback on proposed new menu items. Of course, don’t forget to use your site to complement any offline promotions, commercial campaigns or announcements.

And finally, don’t make the all too common mistake of letting your site languish with old, stale or irrelevant content. Your site is a living creature – so make sure to feed it and clean up after it. It should reflect the current state of your enterprise and tell the world about your latest and upcoming achievements. Keep it fresh is a good motto to live by, both in the kitchen and on the Web.

Marcelo Ziperovich is the co-founder and chief creative officer of imagistic, an Internet software and services company in Venice, Calif. Ziperovich can be reached at mailto:marceloz@imagistic.com.

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