From food trucks to five-star dining, the Internet has the power to make or break a restaurant. Yet with the hustle and bustle required to run a successful restaurant, the last things on many owners’ minds at the end of the day are their websites and social media pages. Restaurant owners are responsible for every last detail of a customer’s in-house experience, from first impressions, quality of service, ingredients, and labor to the cost of food. Amidst these concerns, a restaurant’s web presence often gets “86-ed.” 

Many restaurants have less-than-adequate websites or no web presence at all, but research shows a well-played online presence is a significant factor in a restaurant’s success. The marketplace is evolving, making it easier for customers as well as restaurant owners to use the web. To stay relevant and ensure your restaurant is in front of your customer base—from out-of-towners and vacationers to new local customers—you would be wise to embrace a few simple web strategies.

After working alongside many restaurant owners to boost their online buzz, I’ve produced a list of the five best practices for restaurant owners to easily stay in front of their ever-growing online audience:

  • Get a Website. There is no excuse not to have a website. Really. Today’s user-friendly, free web tools cancel both technological barriers and budgetary concerns. These platforms make it easy to integrate your restaurant’s menu online, embed an OpenTable reservation form, and add just about any social features popular with customers. There’s no better time than now to get in front of your online audience. Your website serves as your digital business card and online window into your restaurant, enticing customers for a first visit or recurring visit. 
  • First Impressions. Stats show an initial visit to a website lasts a mere 8 seconds. Make a strong impact from your homepage by putting your most valuable content first. Keep designs clean and be sure the most important information pops. In a recent study from AIS Media, 89 percent of consumers said they research a restaurant online before making a decision to dine there. Know what your audience is looking for and design your homepage with an accurate visual representation of what customers will find when they ultimately walk through the door.
  • Stay Current. You would never serve stale pasta or old ingredients to your customers, and the same should hold true for your online presence. The first place to start is with your online menu. Access to menus is one of the most popular reasons for visiting a restaurant’s website, yet a recent study from Restaurant Science found less than 40 percent of restaurants display a menu online. Whether you’re updating daily, weekly, monthly, or seasonally, an up-to-date menu is the surest way to tell a potential customer you’re paying attention. Remember, no one cares about the 2010 Valentine’s Day menu in March 2013.
  • Go Social. “Going social” scares many restaurant owners in a digital age where every one of your customers has the potential to be an influential food critic. Fear not; this is nothing new. It used to be called “word of mouth.” Still, it has never been more important. New research from the University of California, Berkeley has found that an extra half-star rating on Yelp (from 3.5 to 4 stars) caused a restaurant's 7 p.m. bookings to sell out 30 percent to 49 percent of the evenings it was open for business. The key here is to understand the social channels you need the most, such as Twitter, Foursquare, Facebook, and Yelp. Then you have to build a consistent presence there. Whichever channels you decide to take up, monitor online review pages as well. If a customer conveys a poor experience, be transparent and join the conversation—invite them back to your restaurant with an incentive or simply apologize, just as you would do with a similar customer in-house.
  • Go Mobile. According to findings from the Restaurant Science study mentioned, half of all visits to restaurant websites are from mobile devices, yet only 5 percent of restaurants have mobile-optimized websites. Even more intriguing, a recent study from Nielsen found that 87 percent of mobile users in the restaurant category planned to make a purchase that day. Wouldn’t it be nice to be in front of a purchase-ready audience? Opt for a platform that can be accessed on all mobile devices, such as HTML5. Many easy-to-use website creators are now offering free HTML5 platforms that can be viewed on any mobile device (such as iPads, iPhones, and Android and Windows devices). 

The web is keeping up with the fast-paced world of the restaurant industry and making it easier than ever before. Don’t allow your online strategy to take a back seat. A restaurant’s online presence and reputation does in fact influence off-line success. As you do in your daily routine, engage your front-line service people, waiters, and counter staff. Have them politely listen and inquire with customers and shape your online presence based on feedback.

It’s time for restaurateurs to give their web presence the same strategic and tactical thought as they do to staffing, menu planning, and every other aspect of their day-to-day operations.

Expert Takes, Feature