e-Commerce Emerges

By Cihan Cobanoglu, Guest Writer | May 01, 2004

Restaurants, in the last year, have made market improvements to their websites. Yet our third annual report and analysis of select websites in the restaurant industry finds that there is still a huge need for improvement even for the best restaurant website. Our criteria, which we have created from extensive literature review, interviews with restaurant customers and restaurant operators, revealed one winner this year with 250 points -- Starbucks.com. But before we tell all about why Starbucks' website ranks highest, we'll explain the method used to select the websites, the criteria used, and the summary of the results of our analysis.

Website Selection
As everyone can agree, their are hundreds of great restaurant websites. However, to include hundreds of websites into an extensive analysis like this one is just not feasible. Therefore, we have limited our survey to 30 restaurant websites. We randomly selected 25 restaurants with 20 units or more from the 2003 Chain Food Service Operator's Directory. In addition, to ensure we had a basis of comparison with last year's analysis, we included the top three restaurant websites for 2003 (benihana.com; Starbucks.com; dunkin donuts.com) and randomly chose two additional restaurants (sonicdrivein.com; bostonmarket.com) from the 2003 study.

Criteria Used
The study incorporated over 400 criteria to evaluate the websites in seven major categories: 1) technical specifications; 2) technology used; 3) site attractiveness; 4) ease of navigation; 5) ease of contact; 6) marketing effectiveness; and 7) legal compliance. Under each of these categories, we looked at both objective and subjective criteria. For objective criteria, we measured only once, however, for subjective criteria such as site attractiveness, we used multiple evaluators and only used the average of those evaluators. This extensive study took one month to complete.

Results
We have seen that some restaurant websites were put together by professionals, while others seemed as though they were built by 12-year-old children. Some websites were updated regularly, even hourly, to reflect the changes and dynamic life of a restaurant, whereas others were created and never touched again. With more than 400 criteria analyzed, it would be impossible to report on all of the results for each website. The following analysis is meant to offer insight in restaurant website design and development to better understand what works and what does not; where restaurants accel and where there is need for improvement.

Technical Specifications
It's important for a website to load fast. So we measured the loading time of the restaurant's homepages at different modem speeds and average download time. In this category, we were unable to test Manchuwok.com because we used robots. Although it may seem reasonable to reject robots, as Manchuwok.com did, it is important to remember that there are good robots (search engines for example) that help drive traffic to your website. Creating a unique title, a short description, keyword, and tags also helps with indexing by webspiders. This will also help the internal search tool to index correctly and find pages fast and accurately.

We also checked each website for errors using a variety of Web browsers. Sandellas.com had the most errors with 14. All webpage editors are not created equally, hence various Web browsers interpret the HTML differently. But changes can be made to the HTML to make your site appear consistent on all browsers. It is important that your website look great in all browsers and this should be checked regularly while the site is under construction.

Faulty HTML codes often create errors and warnings. Sandellas.com (39 errors) and Starbucks.com (36 errors) had the most errors. HTML warnings are important because they have a high potential to become HTML errors which affect the quality of the website and consequently user satisfaction.

Bad links and spelling errors also affect user satisfaction. We counted the number of bad links in the first five pages of the restaurants' websites. Embersamerica.com had one error and the other websites also did well in this criterion.

In today's world, bandwidth and plug-ins can still be problematic for some users therefore we believe that offering an alternative way of accessing the information is necessary. Unfortunately none of the websites offered an alternative way of accessing the website.

Technology used
Java and Java Script are becoming increasingly popular on websites, but can create errors if not done properly. Happily, the majority of the websites we checked did not have Java and Java Script errors. Yet many sites are not using the leading edge technologies available to them, such as Java, DHTML, Active X, or XML. Alonti.com did not use any of these advanced web authoring tools.

These tools if used affectively can help your site draw attention. Many sites use Flash to do this, but few do a good job at it. Samuraisams.net and Acapulcorestaurants.com are just two examples where a nice attention getting piece would have been wonderful. On the other hand, we loved Benihana's creative Flash animation with the option to skip it. Audio and video can be used for this purpose also. Again, benihana.com used multi-media solutions effectively by putting its radio and TV commercials online. Starbucks.com uses audio samples of songs for their music compilation.

Site Attractiveness
Site attractiveness was measured by the following criteria:

  • Ease of use
  • Clarity & simplicity
  • Elegance & sophistication of core design concepts
  • Typography and font styles
  • Originality of components
  • Visual appeal
  • Contrasting background and text
  • Effectiveness of unified feel
  • General layout & use of space
  • Complexity & quality of tables
  • Use of borders, dividers, rules
  • Length of scrolling pages

The two winners of this section are Burgerking.com and benihana.com. Both scored 100 percent (60 points out of 60 points). Both used Flash animations and high quality yet small graphic files to attract the visitors to the website. The use of colors and borders are flawlessly crafted. On the other hand, Acapulco restaurants.com, Tacojohns.com and Embersamerica.com all need some improvement in this respect. The research team felt the sites do not effectively utilize good color and text combinations. In addition, the sites do not have a unified feel.

Ease of Navigation

Navigation is maybe the most important component of a website that directly affects the quality of the visitor experience. In today's competitive Internet environment, bad navigation can be a turn off for many visitors.

Navigational toolbars should work correctly and be consistent throughout the website. Navigation is so important that many sites include two levels of toolbars: 1) top level, which does not change from page to page; and 2) second level, which changes based on the contents of the webpage.

Some of the best practices in this area can be found at Atlantabread.com with its unified two level navigational toolbar and Starbucks.com with a Java self-expandable and two level navigation system.

Improvements are needed for Tacojohns.com although the current navigational toolbar is consistent throughout the pages. One possibility would be to stop using out-moded frames to provide a consistent navigation bar. When we tried to view the website with different screen resolutions, we found that some words were cut off by the frame.

By now it should be standard for all websites to have a button leading back to the homepage available on every page. The goals is to make navigation as easy as possible for visitors. We were happy to find that all of the websites had a home button or link available on their websites.

We checked to see if the website offered a site map and search facility to search for keywords. Damons.com and Sandellas.com were the only two sites that had a site map. We believe that this is an important tool as a guide to navigation and should be employed.

Ease of Contact
It seems like common sense that a website would provide company contact information, yet you would be surprised how many websites do not. We checked if these websites clearly provided a direct e-mail contact, a mailing address, a telephone number, a fax number, and a way to report errors to the webmaster. For these criteria, bostonmarket.com and Perkinsrestaurants.com collected all possible 25 points.

We believe that a primary reason why visitors visit a restaurant website is to contact the restaurant chain, therefore, the contact information should be made readily available to the visitor. More common are sites like Manchuwok.com, where the telephone number for the company was hidden under three levels and we could not locate the address for the corporate location.

Marketing Effectiveness
We looked at marketing effectiveness in six ways: 1) Globalization (i.e. website available in different languages); 2) Customer Service (i.e. Help, FAQ section); 3) Guest Interaction (i.e. Membership, Community pages); 4) Marketing Tools (i.e. Menu provided, Gift coupons); 5) Partnership & Investors (i.e. Information for investors); 6) Market Positioning (Vision and mission statements of company).

In addition, we sent an e-mail query asking the number of restaurants in a state. The same e-mail message was sent to all restaurant companies on the same day. All automated and personalized responses were tracked.

We received only one automated response from Eatatjacks.com. In some websites, we used a webform and after submitting the question we received a confirmation page that acknowledged the receipt of the message and they would respond as soon as possible.

Only bostonmarket.com and Champps.com responded within the first 24 hours with a personalized response. Starbucks.com and Barnhills.com responded within two days, and sonicdrivein.com responded within five days. All others either did not respond or responded after the fifth day which, in our opinion, has no value.

Legal Compliance
In this final section of the evaluation, we checked to see if the restaurant website had copyright disclaimers, a trademark prominently displayed, site usage terms, a privacy policy statement, and U.S. Section 508 guidelines (website compliance for people with disabilities).

Tullys.com and bostonmarket.com had perfect scores for legal compliance. Although, it is only mandatory for U.S. federal websites, we believe that every restaurant should make their website compliant with U.S. Section 508 so that any one with a disability (i.e. blind person) can view and hear the website. Many restaurant websites, like Acapulcorestaurants.com and Olgas kitchen.com need to improve in this respect.

The Bottom Line
Taking all these considerations together, we can say that restaurant websites have made only marginal improvements. Last year's No. 1 and No. 2 restaurant websites, benihana.com and Starbucks.com had 233 and 232 points, respectively. This year, the No. 1 and No. 2 restaurant sites Starbucks.com and Burgerking.com have 250 and 231 points, respectively. Although Starbuck's has made some improvements; the changes are incremental. As e-commerce develops and expands, we hope that restaurant websites will move to take advantage more aggressively. Several simple fixes can improve traffic to your website significantly.

The Top 10 Restaurant Websites
Starbucks Coffee Company (250)
Burger King (231)
Benihana (229)
Dunkin Donuts (218)
Sonic Drive-In (218)
Boston Market (216)
Champps (203)
Damons.com" target="new">Damons Grill (203)
Bruster's Ice Cream (200)
Morton's, The Steakhouse (199)

Author's Note: University of Delaware and Bilkent University students helped with this research. Special thanks to UD Graduate student,Yan Lin, for her efforts in this project. Cobanoglu, C., (2004). 2004 Restaurant Website Study. Hospitality Technology Magazine (May 2004).

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