When potential customers check out a restaurant's website, they're looking for information on the restaurant's menu, hours of operation, the location, events and often an online order form or take-out option.

The Essentials
Your site needs to be attractive, up-to-date and have the most important information--like phone number, location (including map), menu and specials, and a testimonial or two--right on the homepage. People who find your site on a search engine want that kind of information quickly. They'll usually spend a very short time on your site, so getting the basics on the homepage is a must.

You don't need to spend a fortune filling your site with fancy video screens and slideshows. While some restaurant sites could be considered an art form, however, most visitors to your site will never spend the kind of time required on your site to ever justify the expense. Your site needs to be informative, attractive and simple.

Hire an SEO professional with a track record and ask that he concentrate on location(s) of your restaurant to drive searches in your area as well as to drive searches by out-of-towners who are looking for a good place to eat. Use Google Analytics or another program to get a sense of how the site is doing and who's sending you traffic.

Be aware of how the search engines operate. This practice is called search engine optimization (SEO). Make sure the SEO professional you hire optimizes for keywords, not just for the restaurant's name. If people don't know the name of your restaurant, how will they find your website? Your site needs to show up not only for an exact match of your restaurant's name but for a variety of searches. For example, let's say your restaurant is called "Steak on a Stick," and you're located in Miami. You want people to be able to find your restaurant by typing "Steak on a Stick" into the search engine, but you'd also like them to be able to find it by typing "Steak restaurants in Miami," "restaurants in Miami," "popular restaurants in Miami," etc. A good SEO foundation will help your website accomplish these results.

One way to improve your SEO is keeping fresh content on your site. Many websites are established and then forgotten. Search engines like sites that get a regular supply of fresh content, and users will view it as stagnant and not return if it's updated infrequently. One of the best ways to accomplish this is by starting a blog and writing articles about your restaurant on a regular basis.

Convey the experience of your restaurant on your website. Give web visitors a glimpse of what it would be like to step into your restaurant. Is it family-friendly? Young and upbeat? Suave and high-end? This must be conveyed by a restaurant's site.

A huge part of a restaurant's business comes from online reservations, so if you can't afford signing up with something like OpenTable.com, at least have contact information for reservations highlighted prominently on each page.

Take-out is another story. You need to be sure you have the logistics in place to handle the volume that may come from offering a take-out form on your website. According to TVI Designs, developing any kind of takeout system that allows users to order online with or without a payment system in place is a $10K-plus investment when it's done right.

Mistakes to Avoid
Most restaurants unsuccessful in converting customers on the web have committed the following mistakes:

Bad design. Inconsistent menus and poor layout may frustrate visitors and cause them to leave your site. Festive music is fine on a restaurant's website, but make sure it's not off-putting to certain audiences. Also, while matching your restaurant's physical location's décor is a good idea, using a white or light-colored background and larger text makes your site more readable. Consider that if your customers are older, this is an attractive feature to them.

Neglecting to call in the professionals. Asking what they can do to improve your site often results in a complimentary consultation.

Using "frames" in your site's development. A redesign and SEO is recommended if your site's development included frames, as it's unfavorable for most search engines.

Your content is insufficient or improperly organized. Add your restaurant's history, owner's biographies and basic biography of the head chef and sous chef.

No web marketing plan. You should be able to know what drives customers to your site so you can better craft your marketing to specific audiences. Make sure your web professional can provide you with web traffic statistics so you know what's driving customers to what areas of your site.

Places to Be
Search engines are critical. Make sure your webmaster sets you up properly to be picked up by the search engines. Sites like Google have introduced local business directories; it's free for a business to submit to these types of directories.

Other useful low-cost directories that help drive traffic include Citysearch.com for advertising, Noo.com for targeting special annual events such as New Year's and Valentine's Day) and Yelp.com for reviews.

Check out localized dining guides and bloggers in your city willing to include information about your restaurant. Such guides often do so to keep their content fresh.

Facebook, Myspace, Twitter and other social networking sites are all appropriate places for a restaurant to market. Make sure to actively promote your restaurant's various events and specials in your social networking sites.

Ask your SEO or web consultant for recommended sites and blogs in your area to participate in. A blog helps promote your site, and your homepage "restaurant news" or "reviews" feature could use the feed provided by the blog. These feeds can by syndicated by other sites, giving you a much wider web footprint.

Press releases, newspaper, Yelp.com or Citysearch.com reviews should be included in the "restaurant news" as excerpts along with a link to the full press release/review.

Look for forums on cooking or your restaurant's specialty cuisine, and start posting. Make sure you're posting on forums that have content related to your restaurant's specialty. Search engines will pick up your restaurant link if it's related to the forum. Make sure you're adding substance to the forum, as self-promotion of your business is frowned upon.

Researched and written by Elizabeth Wilson. Information provided by: Restaurant Webmaster Online, a web development and web maintenance firm specializing in hospitality and TVI Designs, a web branding, design and marketing agency for the hospitality, leisure and lifestyle industry.