The New Service Frontier

By Reid Paul • Editor-in-Chief | July 01, 2006

2006 is the fifth year that we are reporting our analysis of select websites in the restaurant industry. We are very happy to see that the previous year's studies made a great impact on the development of the restaurant websites. It is common for us to hear from restaurants to offer them professional opinion on their websites or restaurants writing to us notifying that they have redesigned their website based on feedback from our studies. This year, even though we observed that almost all of the restaurant websites look professional, the best website only scores 78% of the all possible points. Unfortunately, this is the same score as last year's study, indicating that restaurant websites still have some ways to go. We have been using very extensive criteria which we have created from literature review, interviews with restaurant customers and restaurateurs. This article will explain the method to select the websites, the criteria used, and the summary of the results of our analysis.

While looking at more websites might be ideal, to include hundreds of websites into an extensive analysis like this one is just not feasible. Instead, each site receives in-depth analysis. Therefore, we have limited our restaurant websites to 22 websites (this is two more restaurants than last year's study because we received two nominations from readers of Hospitality Technology) To make a fair selection, we have randomly selected 20 restaurants with 20 units or more from the 2003 Chain Food Service Operator's Directory. There were roughly 700 pages in the Directory. To get 20 random restaurants, we selected the first restaurant in every thirty-fifth page. We also randomly selected the starting page (between 1 and 20) by using a random number generator. This ensures a completely random selection. In addition, Hospitality Technology magazine invited readers to nominate websites and two were selected (buffet.com and legalseafoods.com). Unlike previous studies, we did not include any websites from earlier studies to ensure that we would get a more random sample. However, buffet.com and carrabbas.com were also included in this year's study because they were either randomly chosen (carrabas.com), or nominated by HT readers (buffet.com). This year's selection also shows a good distribution of some well known national and international chains as well as small and mid-sized regional chains.

Criteria used

We used over 400 specific criteria to evaluate the websites under seven major categories. The categories were: technical specifications, technology used, site attractiveness, ease of navigation, ease of contact, marketing effectiveness, e-commerce solutions and legal compliance.
Under each of these categories, we had objective and subjective criteria. For objective criteria, we measured only once, however, for subjective criteria such as site attractiveness, we used the average score of multiple evaluators. The study took one month (January 2006) to complete.

Results

In this year's studyÃ.‚¬"as we concluded last yearÃ.‚¬"we have seen that there are many restaurant websites that were put together professionally. Still, too many of the sites seem to have been designed and created by amateur web designers. Some sites were updated regularly, even hourly, whereas others seem to have been designed and not updated again. Since this analysis is very extensive, unfortunately, it is not possible to report all criteria here.

Tech specs

Speed and bandwidth. We measured the homepage loading time of each site at 14.4K, 28.8K, 33.6K, 56K, ISDN, T1, and the average time was calculated. If the website loaded between one and 10 seconds, it received 5 points for this criterion, with lower points for higher average loading times. scored poorly with an average of 84.87 secondsÃ.‚¬"20 seconds more than last year's slowest loading website, benihana.com. The top sites for this criterion were roundtablepizza.com and rolypoly.com at a speedy 2.56 seconds. Browser compatibility. We counted the number of errors found with different browsers, including Netscape Navigator 3.0 and 4.0; Microsoft Internet Explorer 3.0 and 4.0; America Online 3.0 and 4.0; and Web TV. We totaled the number of errors in each browser and gave a point based on the number of errors. If a restaurant website had no errors, it got 5 points from this criterion. As the number of errors increased, it received fewer points (i.e., 4 points for be 1 - 4 errors). The highest number of errors belongs to pizzabolis.com with 39 errors. The only website that did not have any errors was acapulcorestaurants.com.

HTML quality: We counted the number of errors and warnings that were produced by HTML codes. If a restaurant website had no errors, it received 5 points. grandys.com and roundtablepizza.com had the highest number of errors (9) in this criterion. This year's HTML error numbers decreased significantly compared to last year's study. This is a good sign. We also looked at how many HTML warnings the sites had but we did not include the warnings in the scoring. However, warnings are important because they have a high potential to become HTML errors. Link integrity. In this criterion, we have counted the number of bad links in the first five pages of the restaurant website. If a restaurant had no bad links, it got 5 points, and up to three errors got 4 points and so on. None of the websites had any bad links. Spell check. In this criterion, we counted the number of words in the first page of a restaurant website and checked it against a U.S. English dictionary. (We should note that since this process is done automatically and there might be some restaurant-specific words that are correct but not included in the dictionary.) All websites performed well in this respect except legalseafoods.com, which had three potential spelling errors.

Page titles, descriptions, keywords, tags. We counted the number of words in the page title of the restaurant homepage, descriptions, keywords and tags used in the HTML codes. If we found descriptors in each, the site received 5 points. For every section that was empty, one point was deducted. We believe that every webpage should have a unique title, a short description, keyword, and tags. This way, it will be easy to be found by web search engines. Ten sites were missing some components therefore did not get the full 5 points in this criterion. It is important to note that some of the sites (valentinos.com, grandys.com and sandellas.com) had one or two words in their title tag. These websites may want to revise their title tag because having only one or two words may not be descriptive enough to gain the full benefit of tags. Plain text/HTML alternate entry paths. We checked if a restaurant website had more than one way of entering the website (i.e., text only, Flash or Rich HTML). Although more and more Internet users have switched to broadband access, bandwidth and plug-ins can still be problematic for others. We believe that offering an alternative way of accessing the information is necessary. Similar to last year's study, none of the websites offered an alternative way of accessing the website.

Last updated: We checked to see if the restaurant websites reported when they last updated the site. The majority of sites did not report this information. We believe this is important for visitor's perception of currentness.

Technology used

Java and JavaScript dependency: We have checked for Java and JavaScript errors. Majority of the websites did not have Java and Java Script errors. Effective use of leading edge technologies (Java, DHTML, Active X, XML): In this section, we looked for the use of advanced web technologies. If any of the advanced tools are used, the website received 5 points. Otherwise, we did not give any points. the Majority of the websites had full points in this section. The lotaburger.com and valentinos.com sites did not use any of these authoring tools.
Attention getting features. We checked for any attention getting piece on the homepage of the restaurant website. If found, we gave 5 points, otherwise no points. bahamabreeze.com used excellent graphics in its website. A short, to the point, but effective Flash animation at the bahamabreeze.com website was very attractive, although we suggest that it provide an option to turn off the audio. We believe that all restaurant websites can benefit from Flash animations with an option to skip it. Use of audio and video. If the restaurant website used audio and video in some way, we gave them full points. sandellas.com had excellent video excerpts.

Plug-in provided. Although we believe that many users will have the plug-ins for programs such as Flash, Acrobat Reader and Window Media Player, we advise that restaurant websites should still offer the URL to the plug-in websites. The following websites offered plug-ins on their website: subway.com, lotaburger.com, sandellas.com, buffet.com and ihop.com

Site attractiveness

This section dealt with the mainly subjective elements of a website. For the following criteria, we used a standard scale ranging from Ã.‚¬Å"ExcellentÃ.‚¬ (5 points) to Ã.‚¬Å"PoorÃ.‚¬ (1 point). Site attractiveness was analyzed using the following sets of criteria: ease of use, clarity and simplicity, elegance and sophistication of core design concepts typography and font styles, originality of components, visual appeal, contrast between background and text, effectiveness of unified feel, general layout and use of space, complexity and quality of tables, use of borders, dividers, rules, length of scrolling pages. Four sites scored perfectly for these subjective criteria (bahamabreeze.com, legalseafoods.com, applebees.com, and littlecaesars.com). These sites all used advanced HTML authoring techniques and high quality yet small graphic files to attract the visitors to the website. On the other hand, valentinos.com and lotaburger.com both need improvements in this area, scoring 31 points out of 60 points.

Ease of navigation

We believe that navigation is maybe the most important component of a website that directly affects the quality of the visitor experience. We have measured navigation effectiveness by looking at whether navigational toolbars were working correctly and consistent throughout. In addition, we looked at whether the site had two levels of navigational toolbars (a top level which does not change from page to page and a second level which changes based on the contents of the specific page). Sites like bahamabreeze.com, rolypoly.com, and legalseafoods.com all received the maximum of 20 points. Home button availability. It is important for a visitor to be able to return to the home page at any point. A home icon or link should be available from any page. Most websites had home button/link but both hawaiianbarbeque.com and lotaburger.com did not have it throughout the website.

Site map

We checked to see if the restaurant website offered a site map. the majority of the websites did not offer a site map. We believe that this is an important tool as a guide to navigation.

Search facility

We checked to see if the restaurant website offered a search facility to search a keyword within the website. The legalseafoods.com, round
tablepizza.com, sandellas.com, bahamabreeze.com and rolypoly.com sites were the only restaurant websites that included a search capability. We strongly suggest that restaurant websites should offer search capability within the website for quick and targeted visitors.

Ease of contact

One of the main reasons why a visitor visits a restaurant website is to contact the restaurant owners and/or managers therefore; the contact information should be made readily available to the visitor. Therefore, we looked at whether sites offered direct email contact information, a mailing address telephone numbers, fax numbers and the ability to report site errors. The only restaurant website that collected all 25 points was rolypoly.com.

Marketing effectiveness

This section wanted to see the level of the website being used as a marketing tool rather than an electronic brochure. This section had 19 criteria under six main categories with a maximum 99 points. These categories included the availability of multiple languages, customer service, membership or community pages, marketing tools, information for investors, and market positioning. Responsiveness. In addition, we have sent an email query (for some of the websites, we used web forms since they did not provide any email addresses). The question we asked was if they were public company and if they were, how we could access their annual report for 2005. The same email message was sent to all restaurant companies on the same day. All automated and personalized responses were kept track. We gave 5 points for any automated or personalized response within the first 24 hour. We decreased points as days passed without any answer. We received automated responses from only littlecaesars.com and some websites, had web forms that acknowledged receipt of the message. In terms of personalized response, sandellas.com, firehousesubs.com, paparomanos.com and olgaskitchen.com responded within the first 24 hour, pizzabolis.com responded on the sixth day. All others either did not respond at all. We believe that restaurants should have a system to acknowledge the correspondence from visitors who are their potential or current customers.

Domain name ownership

Finally, in this section, we checked if the restaurant company has registered all other domain extensions. These were .net, .org, .biz, .info, .name, .us. We used the directnic.com database to check the ownership. None of the restaurants registered all six extensions, but carrabbas.com registered five. The majority of the restaurants only registered the .com extension.

Legal compliance
In this final section of the evaluation, we checked to see if the restaurant website had copyright disclaimers, trademark prominently displayed, site usage terms, privacy policy statement, US Section 508 guidelines (compliance for peoples with disabilities), Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 1.0. Unfortunately, the highest score in this category was 21 out of 30 possible points for subway.com and firehousesubs.com. We believe that every restaurant company should make their website compliant with U.S. Section 508 so that anybody with a disability (i.e. blind person, color blind person) can view/hear the website. None of the websites were compliant.

Conclusion

This year's study showed that there are a number of areas for improvements for restaurant websites. Even for the best restaurant website, bahamabreeze.com, there is a great deal of room for improvement. We suggest that every restaurant company review the criteria used in this study and analyze their own sites to see how they compare. As the Internet becomes an increasingly important part of the lives of most consumers, we expect to see restaurant websites to catch up. The growth of online ordering and other e-commerce functions can play an important role in restaurant companies marketing strategies. However, a poorly designed or out of date restaurant website will not only hurt the image of the company but the value of the brand itself. Therefore, we invite every restaurant company to invest appropriately on the design and maintenance of their websites.

This study was conducted by By Cihan Cobanoglu, Ozgur Ozdemir, and Tevfik Demirciftci. For more information, please contact Dr. Cihan Cobanoglu
at (302) 831 4881 or via email at
cihan@udel.edu.


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