A restaurant's website is a critical tool in attracting diners, so it's crucial to get the design right.

How to Make a Restaurant Website a Better Marketing Tool

Digital first impressions are critical, and these strategies can ensure brands send the right message to viewers.

Some types of businesses can legitimately quibble over whether they need a great website as opposed to a good one. But if you’re in the restaurant business, there’s no argument—you need a great website. Anybody looking for a restaurant is going to want to check out the menu and the atmosphere, as well as find out how to get there. This holds true whether the person wants to make a reservation a month in advance or is in the car and ready to eat right now.

Some restaurateurs may think, “We can get by with an OK website. We’ll let our customers do the talking (and photo sharing) on review websites.”While review websites are indeed powerful marketing tools, relying on them is risky. On your website, you control the message and how you want to present your dining experience. Positive reviews are undoubtedly helpful, but they won’t convey a consistent message, and well-intended reviews could even convey the wrong message, or share unappetizing images of your food or facilities. A much worse problem is negative reviews—without a very strong website of your own, you will have a hard time countering the bad impressions negative reviews leave on potential new patrons.

So, what turns a good restaurant website into a great one?

1. Have Clear Marketing Goals

Restaurant websites fall victim to a problem that afflicts many other businesses: lots of content, no focus. All this accomplishes is confuse site visitors and frustrate their attempts to find the information they need.

The primary goals for your website are probably simple. You want to create a favorable impression of your restaurant, and make it easy for site visitors to book a reservation or walk in. Anything on your site that gets in the way of these goals should be eliminated or tweaked, whether it involves content, design, or functionality.

2. Get Rid of the PDF Menu

Elegantly designed menus are impressive in person, but frustrating online. On mobile devices especially, website visitors must pinch and zoom, and even then the information may be awkwardly formatted.

A much more user-friendly approach is to create your menu on a regular HTML web page(s), and design it “mobile first,” so visitors accessing your site from their mobile phones can scan the menu with ease. Multiple page menus should have their own sub-navigation with intuitive links for appetizers, entrees, desserts, etc. If you are proud of your printed menu and think it will impress website visitors, link to it on your HTML menu page(s) with anchor text such as, “See our printed menu (PDF).”

3. Create or Improve Your Mobile-Friendly Website

Mobile-friendliness is a huge issue for restaurants. Mobile Internet access exceeds desktop access, and the gap is widening. Also, Google reported in 2016 that about 60 percent of its search queries come from mobile devices. A great many of Google’s mobile searches have local buying intent. To improve the mobile usability of your site:

  • Fix navigation at the top of the screen so it is always in view as visitors scroll down.
  • Fix a phone icon with click-to-call functionality at the top of the screen, labeling it as, say, “Reservations.”
  • Display hours of business on each page.
  • For easy reading, make text large, with high contrast against the background.
  • Incorporate plenty of white space in your page designs.
  • Embed a Google Map with your location(s) on your site. The page could be called “Contact” or “Locations,” with a link in the top navigation.
  • Have a super-simple form with large fields for making reservations, with a top navigation link called “Reservations.” (If you use a third-party reservation platform, take visitors there from that top navigation link.)
  • In general, avoid overdesigning your web pages. Too many colors, font sizes, font styles, and so forth confuse visitors, and may also slow down page loading time, which will really frustrate them.

4. Don’t Be Too Creative

Restaurateurs are creative people, which is great for food but not always great for web design. The key to creating a great user experience—one that ultimately brings new patrons through the door—is a website that is predictable, familiar, and therefore easy to use. Keep in mind that most first-time website visitors spend only a few seconds on a web page before deciding whether or not to click off. With that in mind:

  • Use common labels in navigation. For instance, label your menu link “Menu,” and not “Our Eats.”
  • Put navigation items in their usual place. For instance, people expect to see phone numbers in the upper right corner or a web page, so that is where to put it.
  • Headlines and subheads in textual content should emphasize clarity and help visitors scan.

5. Invest in Great Photography

A professional photographer once told me one of the hardest things to do is take photos of food that look good. Having looked at thousands of restaurant websites, I believe him. Taking effective photos of interior and exterior space is no picnic, either, so one of the best website investments you can make is in high-quality photography.

Photos of your signature dish, signature drink, lively atmosphere, and friendly servers will get far more attention than any text on your website. These photos will make you or break you. It’s much better to have a handful of spectacular images than a bucketful that may do you more harm than good.

6. Listen to Customers to Improve Your Site

Your website (any website) can be improved. The best way for a restaurant to improve is to listen to customers.

When I’m dining out, I love it when the manager comes to our table and asks how we’re enjoying the meal. It’s wonderful—but I’m still waiting for a manager to ask what I think of the website. If you can gather that kind of feedback, you’ll build an excellent list of website improvements in less than a week.

In addition, take note of questions you hear from patrons, and turn them into an FAQ page on your site, or weave answers into your existing content. This type of content not only improves the visitor experience, it may take some weight off the staff. Questions to address could include:

  • Hours of operation during various holidays
  • Dress code/recommendations
  • Private dining and events options
  • How to buy gift cards
  • Kid-friendly features (high chairs, children’s menu, etc.)
  • Special dietary options

Building a great marketing website may indeed involve a lot of work, but it doesn’t have to be done overnight. The first step is to look at everything that needs to be done to bring it up to a high standard. Then, create a prioritized list, and attack it as time and budget allow. Whether it takes a few months or a year to get your website where you want it, you’ll sleep well knowing your site is getting better all the time.

Brad Shorr is director of content strategy for Straight North, an SEO company in Chicago serving small and midsized businesses throughout the U.S.