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This day’s portion

Why restaurants publish images of their menus online (and why they shouldn't)

We were looking for somewhere to eat in Ipswich and its environs and trawled through a few restaurant websites, which is rarely a pleasurable experience. Apart from the IA problems (where’s the menu?) and gigantic sliders of mashed potato, the most common annoyance is the menu.

Usually, restaurants approach menus in one of two ways. The first is to link to a PDF, the second (and worse) is to put an image on the page. It’s pretty rare for a restaurant to publish an honest to goodness HTML menu.

Using an image of text instead of text is bad for lots of reasons – a real web sin. Apart from the fact you make your menu inaccessible to anyone using a screen reader – and by extension to search engines – text in images scale poorly. If you do use them, your menu won’t be readable on a phone.

So why don’t restaurants publish HTML menus? Well, menus are a pain to mark up and edit once they’re published. They’re long, awkwardly structured documents – if you’re bothered by sectioning elements, what do you use? One article split into sections (and sub sections), nested sections or just a few divs with several heading levels? It’s often easier to get the Word doc or PDF from the restaurant owner and throw it online.

The second reason is more interesting – it shows how most people still see the web as secondary to print and physical business assets. In a restaurant, the menu is an important part of the restaurant’s image. Owners will spend some time on its layout and typography (centring is popular in the menu world), or even get a professional in to do the work. They want the online version to look similarly special.

As we know, print and the web are separate beasts. Producing an attractive looking, editable HTML menu is further work. You can do it, but if the restaurant owner’s changing the menu quite often, they can often run into formatting problems, and then mess up the markup as they try and change the layout and typography.

In an ideal world the owner would leave the designer to it, and the designer would build an attractive, robust menu – something that works well online. What often happens is the owner wants the menu to look exactly like their printed document.

Business and organisation owners’ misunderstanding of how the web works, and their consequent lack of respect for web professionals, is often the biggest hurdle designers face when they build websites. I can see why so many PDFs and images end up online, but it really is worth the effort – from owner and developer – to get it right.