Imagine spending the whole day preparing food to serve in your restaurant that night, but never unlocking the door. Imagine your customers’ confusion as there is not a sign in the window or any communication from you; eventually they wander off to dine down the street. An absurd scenario, yes, but one that illustrates that having a physical front door that is inexplicably closed is akin to not having a website in today’s digital marketplace. You are, in fact, closing your virtual front door — the door to your online customers.

In a recent study of Internet use in the restaurant industry done by our company, Restaurant Sciences, we were shocked to learn that although almost all chain restaurants have websites, less than 50% of independent restaurants do. And of the independent restaurants that did have websites, only 40% display their menu. We were so surprised by this finding that we verified it with follow-up calls.

A lack of Web presence in today’s digital world has negative consequences, particularly that of not being able to take advantage of an online search. Our study also shows that many independent restaurants without a website have set up a Facebook page. Although a Facebook presence is important, it is not a replacement for a website because search engines such as Google and Bing have limited ability to display the content that your restaurant posts on Facebook. Without a website, the ability to attract consumers searching online for a venue is limited. Many online sites, such as menu aggregators, use websites to gather and pass along information they find. Restaurants without a Web presence can’t benefit from this online amplification.

In addition to customers using their computers to search for a restaurant, many are increasingly using their mobile devices. Google reports that 64% of consumers searched for restaurants from their mobile phones over Valentine’s Day weekend. Without a website, how will your restaurant show up in a mobile search? Previous research by our company shows that most mobile searches take place on a weekend and are immediate and action-oriented, as people are looking for restaurants while they are on the go. Having a website dramatically increases your chances of showing up in their mobile browsers. Once you establish a website, it is easy to take the next step of establishing a mobile website to ensure that your essential information is optimized for the smaller screen. What works on a desktop is likely not appropriate for mobile users on the go.

In addition to taking advantage of online searches, establishing a website is also key since most e-commerce applications, such as online ordering, gift certificates and reservations, are mainly embedded on websites and their availability is limited on Facebook.

Our study also shows that most restaurants are not taking advantage of, or even claiming as their own, the Google Places or Bing listings that these search engines automatically create for restaurants. This is most likely due to restaurants’ lack of awareness of these sites and of the search benefits that can be gained with relatively little effort. Consumers, however, are way ahead of restaurant owners in utilizing these sites, and often post restaurant reviews.

Even establishing a one-page website is a great start to leveraging your restaurant’s online search presence. Open your virtual front door and capture customers who are looking to discover and learn about your restaurant, and ultimately lead them to your physical front door.

Terry Dankel is vice president of products at Restaurant Sciences, a provider of information and analytics to the restaurant industry. Restaurant Sciences provides granular information including visitation and item-level data and analysis.

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4 responses to “Closing your virtual front door: Why do half of America’s independent restaurants not have a website?”

  1. Merri Lee Kingsly says:

    To take this a step further Terry most restauranteurs don't realize the power of social media and the low out of pocket cost to keep customers connected to their restaurants and acquire new customers. Social media, has the powerful pebble in the water effect be it Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest or You Tube, etc…all should be drivers to a restaurants website which is where the chef's bio, picture gallery, press, recipes, etc…should be listed and updated all the time. If you give the customer value every time they visit your website your will train them to keep coming back and always have your brand top of mind when making a choice where to eat. Menu's are aggregated on many sites so give them more and get them excited and show a visitor you are different.

  2. A.J. Barker says:

    The restaurant consulting firm I work for added a software department a couple years ago to make having a website for our clients a no brainer. For $540 a year, maintenance, hosting, seo, and reservation system among 45 other features are included in the package.

    Everyone in the office was super excited, until the client learning curve. Sometimes restaurants embody the last grain of American dream boot strapping, and leading a client to any technology in the food business is a skeptical endeavor.

    Ten years ago the crazy client question was, "Do you think if I had a sign it would help business?" Now I hear, "Do you think if I had a website it would help my business?"

    Free advice, yes, it is the modern equivalent of a billboard.

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