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Why ARE Restaurant Web sites so bad?

December 27th, 2010 · 76 Comments

On Twitter, my friends Shani and Erie are engaged in a bit of time-honored kvetching about the legendary and general awfulness of restaurant Web sites. Who thinks it’s good idea to blast annoying music at people going to your site? Why do they so often rely on Flash, which doesn’t really add anything to the experience, when half the time people are looking up the site on mobile devices to get basic information? Why this bizarre preference for menus in PDF format?

The really strange thing to me isn’t that restaurants would make these mistakes initially. These are, after all, mostly small brick-and-mortar businesses whose Web presence is pretty peripheral to what they do. The truly baffling thing is that people have been complaining about these exact same things for years; they’re universally acknowledged to be errors by anyone with a lick of design sense. But you find them replicated even on the sites of fancypants restaurants that have obviously thrown at least a moderate amount of cash into site design recently. Is it just that nobody tells them, that the folks in charge of commissioning these things are somehow still unaware that the superficially glitzy bells and whistles are actually annoying obstacles to usability? Or is there some deeper reason they’re purposefully sticking with bad design?

Update: I guess it’s lazy to pose the question without at least trying to cook up a few hypotheses. One possibility is that there’s an unfortunate feedback loop in effect. Lots of restaurant sites made these mistakes initially. The people commissioning the sites are probably general managers who don’t have a lot of time to spare thinking about Web design, and so they rely on a heuristic of seeing what other sites are doing and expecting their designers to come up with something similar. The designers may know better, but they realize that precisely because the site is peripheral, they’re going to be able to charge based on the superficial glitziness of the site’s appearance, not its actual usability—and indeed, given the suboptimal equilibrium, they’d likely have to burn time and energy explaining to the client why a more functional, better-designed site didn’t look like all the others.

Another possibility is that there’s an attempt at signalling going on. All you’re realistically going to need from a restaurant Web site is a few pages worth of basically static information, and maybe some reservation functionality, which is probably outsourced to OpenTable anyway. People probably aren’t going to be interacting with the site for more than a couple minutes. That means there’s limited ability to cue the user via the site that this is a higher-end joint, if that’s what you’re trying to do. (Design still works surprisingly well as a status marker, I’ve noticed—compare even a relatively kludgy major publication site with something like WorldNetDaily.) So you end up with a sort of Veblenesque “conspicuous consumption” on the splash page—lots of sound and graphics that actually detract from the functionality of the site, but broadcast that you’ve got money to burn on your Web presence. The people who just want directions or a reservation will end up using Google Maps and OpenTable anyway, so semiotics trump usability.

That’s a guess, anyway. It’d be interesting to talk to someone who actually makes these decisions at (or does Web design for) a higher-end restaurant to see what the actual thought process looks like.

Update II: Apropos of the aforementioned kvetches, consider this catalog of things never said about restaurant websites.

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76 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Matt McCandless // Dec 28, 2010 at 5:41 pm

    I’m not much into restaurants and their business practices but I have enjoyed some of the posts and speaking of relevance. I was pulling out my wallet when… Boom! There it was right on my kindle display:

    “Julian Sanchez”
    No items found

    What the eff you see kay! How am I supposed to give you money if you’re not even open for business.

    Thanks for the posts. I guess, until you get with the times, I’ll have to keep using that dilapidated piece of antiquity some like to call the computer.

  • 2 t1 // Dec 28, 2010 at 6:37 pm

    Nobody makes dining decisions based on websites, that’s why.

    Except for delivery/take-out sites that need interactive sites to receive orders.

  • 3 Justin // Dec 28, 2010 at 10:59 pm

    People sure as hell make decisions based on not being able to load a website on their phone. Restaurants lose a lot of semi-impulsive visits that way.

  • 4 K.C.G. // Dec 29, 2010 at 12:21 am

    And that’s really what restaurants should focus on, as much as they can.

    I don’t get the PDF complaint, because converting any standard publishing oriented format to HTML is going to be quite a task — whereas with the right software, you can print *any* document to PDF. Any restaurant with a menu that updates regularly will not want to bother with HTML conversion.

    I get the Flash complaint on the other hand, especially on mobiles. An ideal restaurant will have a mobile-friendly section (with the type of information Superflat mentioned.) Mobile users don’t want fluff, they just want the facts.

  • 5 Joe // Dec 29, 2010 at 12:30 am

    I would love it if more restaurant websites loaded as quickly and simply as this: http://www.shelovesny.com/resy.html

    Pure text with some contrast against the background color, content loaded instantly with no add-ins or multimedia, perhaps with a few photos (no flashy menus or click-throughs) so I can get a sense of how big the place is and its decor, and call it a day.

  • 6 C // Dec 29, 2010 at 12:45 am

    I routinely make dining decisions based on websites, impulsive *and* researched. I want the menu, quickly and easily, on a mobile device. Make that hard, and I’m on to the next restaurant.

    One reason is I often book for groups where one or more members has a dietary restriction — I need to be able to scan the menu to see what the options are.

  • 7 steven schwartz // Dec 29, 2010 at 2:49 am

    Let us not forget the painful to visit Hotel websites, they make me want to sleep in airports or homeless shelters.

  • 8 Julian Sanchez // Dec 29, 2010 at 6:26 am

    Afterthought: OpenTable could make a few extra bucks by fleshing out its restaurant pages a bit and trying to be MySpace for the culinary sector. Nice clean templates for those who just want the basics, simple customization for places that feel compelled to be distinctive…

  • 9 EW // Dec 29, 2010 at 11:41 am

    As a restaurant operator with websites that I am less than enthused about, I feel your pain.
    I believe in clean and simple sites that give visitors necessary info (hours, location, reservation policy) and a feel for the restaurant through description and photos (busy, casual, fine dining, simple, sophisticated).

    In defense of pdf menus…changing a menu at a restaurant is a huge project. There are so many moving parts in a menu update that the guest never sees. Unfortunately, restaurants do not have tech savvy Managers nor do they operate with very high margins in which they can afford expensive web developers. Being able to take the final, laid out version and upload as a pdf ensures accuracy of the content.

  • 10 Pre-Marketing 12/29 – gpkendall.com // Dec 29, 2010 at 2:03 pm

    […] Julian Sanchez wonders why restaurant websites are so bad: “Who thinks it’s good idea to blast annoying music at people going to your site? Why […]

  • 11 Mark // Dec 29, 2010 at 10:36 pm

    I personally prefer menus in PDF format for several reasons. They obviously are easier to read than some of the fancy designer ones created by website programmers. There also easy to export and print the matter what kind of device you’re using. Also from the restaurant point of view in most cases they can just upload a new PDF file without having to involve a programmer when they make any changes so it saves them money also. I certainly don’t see any reason not to use PDF for menus.

  • 12 Tony Marciante // Dec 30, 2010 at 3:19 pm

    Lots to say here from me as a Chef/ Restaurant Owner / techie type who owns 60 + domains and 20+ active websites.

    I’m far from the usual Chef/owner, and my own restaurant site is on a template service now before I convert to a wordpress based site..but..

    Most resturant “to do” lists are a mile long, and contantly interrupted..and most restaurant people are NOT very web savvy, design savvy, or do they really want to deal with any of it. Christ, I’ve seen large restaurant corporations who just got a decent web design in last 5 years… $400M companies…

    There is a whole revolution that restaurant web sites need to go through , most are very ancient, aren’t socially friendly, and don’t “get” that the internet is TRULY their front door now.

    BEing able to update the site is both important, and probably a stretch for most operators..keeping it easy is key, and I used to not have pdfs of my menus on my site , but had to when I got someone complaining that they couldn’t download my menus.. I think html for a web menu might prove way out of the range of an operator to manage…

    Hopefully this makes sense, and my goals for 2011 are to empower/ teach and lead restaurant folks to “get” this technology thing. :)

  • 13 Barry // Jan 3, 2011 at 10:55 am

    Conrad Twizzle:

    “Honestly, I feel your pain. It’s why I’m currently developing : http://www.onebigmenu.com/

    check it out, and let me know what you think ”

    Went there, clicked on a restaurant, waited 10 seconds (on a high-speed connection) for something to happen, and came back.

  • 14 Duke City Food » A Woeful Website: What to do? // Jan 4, 2011 at 8:30 pm

    […] Do you still go? Do you call them and ask them to update their site? Do you email them and threaten to boycott? Post a list of all offending restaurant sites to try to get them to sharpen up, or post a list of GOOD sites as motivation? Embark on a campaign of blogging about the problem? […]

  • 15 Andrea Lin // Jan 4, 2011 at 8:31 pm

    Fabulous discussion – I found your post doing research for my own rant:
    http://dukecityfood.com/2011/01/04/a-woeful-website-what-to-do/

    I like the idea of publicly airing/listing bad sites with the implication of a threatened boycott.

  • 16 Usability vs. Providing an Experience | the Human Factors Blog // Jan 10, 2011 at 8:45 am

    […] Why ARE restaurant sites so bad? […]

  • 17 Buff Ross // Jan 12, 2011 at 12:28 pm

    I am a web designer usually for Museums but in a former life a professional cook. I just finished my first restaurant site. in doing a peer review before the process, found all of the flaws that you described.

    I convinced them to try a different approach. All menus change daily and are archived and, thankfully, not PDFs. The only flash is embedded deeper in the site and serves an actual purpose. Thankfully the restaurant itself is committed to highlighting the producers of the ingredients and the site does this as well. Great discussion.

    http://huskrestaurant.com/

  • 18 Episode 17: You Are What You Tweet | The Overlay Show // Feb 23, 2011 at 6:13 pm

    […] Why Are Restaurant Sites So Bad? […]

  • 19 Wheaton Restaurant Website Guide | Good Eatin' In Wheaton // May 9, 2011 at 10:27 am

    […] TBD wrote about the issue recently; here is an amusing Tumblr (funny because it’s true), and here are some theories about why such badness […]

  • 20 Phillip Evanesce // May 14, 2011 at 4:10 pm

    I never mind constructive criticism, although I get really impatient with people who don’t think before dumping all over a system.

    The reason for PDFs is pretty clear to anyone who designs sites for restaurants. Most restaurants don’t employee site admins, who cam regularly update html pages. With PDFs, the chef or manager can update the menu in Word, save it as a PDF, and then upload it to the server very easily. The web developer can also set a password for only the folder that contains the menu PDFs, eliminating the risk that the restaurant manager or chef might accidentally alter one of the web files or folders within the root folder and breaking the site.

    When I see comments like “the restaurant people need to learn some html”, I pray that those people aren’t being hired to design restaurant websites. Coders tend to have the least amount of common sense when it comes to understand how to make websites functional for non-IT_savvy clients.

  • 21 三便宝 // Jul 27, 2011 at 3:34 am

    When I see comments like “the restaurant people need to learn some html”, I pray that those people aren’t being hired to design restaurant websites. Coders tend to have the least amount of common sense when it comes to understand how to make websites functional for non-IT_savvy clients.

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  • 23 エドハーディー // Jan 20, 2012 at 3:38 am

    nd to have the least amount of common sense when it comes to understand how to make website

  • 24 FOHBOH | Is Your Website An Ugly Duckling? // Jun 29, 2013 at 8:43 pm

    […] entire article is centered around the question: Why ARE restaurant web sites so bad? You can read the article here, but Sanchez raises a good pont — how come restaurant often […]

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