Follow this Trend

Google Business View continues to grow, and the data from google trends shows that people are searching for it more than before.  This isn’t an indicator of how it is being used, or how customers react after engaging with a virtual tour.  It shows how many business owners and marketing managers are investigating google business view.  2014 was a banner year for the program, with interest over 3 times the 2013 numbers.   As more businesses hear about Google Business View, you can expect to see more certified photographers like myself in Massachusetts, and a lot more tours of local businesses popping up.  When will you decide to join this trend and show off your business interior?

Check out the search volumes in this Google Trends embed.

A simple restaurant website

A restaurant/bar homepage for the Outlook Restaurant featuring video, hours of operation, and a big call to action button.

A restaurant/bar homepage for the Outlook Restaurant featuring video, hours of operation, and a big call to action button. This is the Responsive Theme for WordPress v. as of 5/9/13.

Restaurant websites are common, and commonly flawed.  The Oatmeal even made a comic about it! As he pointed out, they need to be simple and have the relevant information displayed as text rather than trapped in images or huge pdf files.

You want to be able to see the menu items, get the phone number, address, find out the hours of operation… What you want is so easy that it’s actually hard to accomplish.  Consider that many restaurant websites have very low budgets and the site designs begin with a free template.  It might only have space for a site logo, tagline, and then menu items.  The quick throw-it-all-together design might get the address and phone up in there, and a page for directions and hours of operation in the menu.  That seems achievable with almost any stock template out there.  For some reason with many restaurant websites, this all falls apart.  Someone eventually gets a huge blurred image of a nasty buffet and puts it at the top of every page pushing all of the content below the fold, or some other design atrocity.

Even if you’re aware of the pitfalls of restaurant websites, the cards are stacked against you.  When I received a new menu and was asked to update the content, I was sent a monstrous pdf file created by a menu designer for the printer.  It was not web friendly.  The menu section headings weren’t centered, they had spaces in front of each heading to move them to the center.

The easiest and fastest thing to do in this position is to upload the printer’s pdf of the restaurant menu and link to it, but while it’s easy to do it the end result is more difficult for view.

A menu with sections you can print and copy!

A menu with sections you can print and copy!

Most web devices have a pdf viewer, but it’s never as easy as having the menu as html right on the page.  It also takes a while on phones or devices with slower connections. So it takes a lot of time to copy the menu items out of the pdf.  You’ll have to remove spaces and weird formatting and reformat it as html.

Trust me, the effort is worth the work.

I always put a link to the pdf as well, clearly at the top of the page along with links to the different sections, with some outgoing tracking code on it.  Less than 1% of visitors want this pdf when they can scroll down the page and view the clean text.  The menu page itself gets indexed highly on search engines, and the pdf is always very low.  So all of these poor restaurant websites suffer from just uploading a new pdf menu every 6 months.  It is clearly worth taking 30 minutes to reformat a menu but I can understand how it doesn’t always happen at restaurants.


A directions tool to help visitors get directions, distance, and drive time to the restaurant without leaving the website, accomplished with google maps api.

A directions tool to help visitors get directions, distance, and drive time to the restaurant without leaving the website, accomplished with google maps api.

Lots of media mixed in with content, and custom layouts to increase time-on-site by beautifying content.

Lots of media mixed in with content, and custom layouts to increase time-on-site by beautifying content.

Luckily this is one area most restaurants have right by now.  There are so many online mapping services and most have made it very easy to link to a page with your business address as the destination.  A great directions page would end with several of those links to google maps, bing, mapquest, ect… There are also easy ways to embed directions into a page, and my favorite choice for this is google maps api.  You’ll have to get a developer key, and you’ll be limited to 100,000 requests per day.

Web Marketing for a haunted attraction, and I am a clown

ww-screenshotWitch’s Woods is a haunted attraction run by Nashoba Valley Ski Area. It features a haunted hayride, 3 haunted houses, and 2 display attractions that are casually haunted by additional actors.

In designing the website for Witch’s Woods, I researched other haunted attractions.  I was surprised to find that many of the sites were built with flash, and as an early adopter of smartphones I was watching the mobile visitor percentage climb.  I was still firmly against using flash on a new design, but I liked the interactive features of these competitor sites.  For a business that sells “scaring people” it made sense to have some things flying around the page and popping out when you clicked.

I did attempt some crazy javascript animations that involved spiders and bats flying out of links.  They were fairly unobtrusive, but as they flew at the screen they would grow larger and cover up elements of the page.  Although this happened briefly and covered some of the next pages load time, at the time I was so obsessed with accessibility and multi-browser compatibility that I didn’t want to risk covering a link ever.

So in the end, I used a “puff” technique made available through jquery’s morph feature.  This created “sprites” that looked like ghosts and appeared to be growing out of the ground around the haunted hayride.  The morph feature in jquery allows you to define start and end properties and it does all of the morphing in between.

  • Step 1: Ghost is just 1×1 px, 0% opacity, positioned at ground level. (Very small, transparent, on the ground)
  • Step 2: Ghost grows to full size of image, in this case 100x200px, 100% opacity, positioned 10px above ground. (ghost has now risen up while growing and fading from transparent to visible)
  • Step 3: 0% opacity, positioned twice it’s height from ground (ghost flies up from the earth as it fades away to transparent)

This is a very cool looking effect, kept the entire site very readable and usable, and worked in all desktop and mobile browsers that I could test at the time.  But something was lacking.  None of the haunted sites I had looked at truly showcased the actual attractions.  The best attempts I had seen were sites that had good photo galleries of images from the haunts.  Video seemed to do the best job.

Showcasing a haunted attraction is almost like showcasing a house listing on a real estate site.  You can show the indoor spaces by using wide fisheye lenses and video that can pan across the entire room.

I did insert an auto-playing video playlist on the homepage, and through this you can convey a lot of the attractions and also the mood and emotions of the customers and actors in a way that a conventional brochure could not.

There were a couple other unique features that were needed for this seasonal business…

  • Operational Calendar: The business is only open in October, and the schedule isn’t the same each year, so the days and hours they are open have to be clearly communicated to the customers.
  • Employment Forms: The business hires about 150 new actors each year. The online application form saves each applicant’s information through a 256-bit encrypted ssl submission.  Hiring managers can look through the hundreds of applications, where applicants list the days they are available to work and any related experience or previous employment.  The hiring manager can then move applicants into different positions, assigning them to work on the Haunted Hayride, into the makeup department, or putting them into less desirable categories like “Fired – Do not rehire”.  Future improvements to the online application software will use applicant contact information to make it easy for department managers to notify entire departments about rain delays or other employment news.
  • Interactive Games: For one game, I placed 10 hidden placards around the haunted grounds, with a qr-code printed on each one.  If someone bothered to scan one, they would be prompted to enter their email address and accept marketing emails from us.  Once they had done this, their first find would be recorded and they would be shown a map with approximate locations of the other placards.  With around 50,000 customers on site that October, only 110 phones ever scanned a qr-code.  (there was one next to the ticket line that almost every customer passed without scanning)  After realizing that they would receive emails for participating, only 10 of those 110 people accepted the terms to continue their quest.  3 people found all 10 placards.  I gave 1 of them a $50 gift card (winner lottery was advertised on the placards) at the end of the month.  This game had very low participation and there was a lot of vandalism of the placards.  In 2011 it was not popular although teens were taking smartphone pics all around the place.  Not all ideas are winners, luckily this idea only had a couple hours of work and some printing costs.
  • Online Sales Redemption System: We were using an e-commerce platform I had set up to sell tickets for Witch’s Woods.  The backend was a bit clunky for the ticket sellers at Will Call to use, so I created a new ticket redemption system from scratch that made it super easy to scan e-tix or look them up by purchaser name.  I modeled this redemption system on some daily deal sites we had used, but I added the additional feature of allowing someone to pick up a portion of their order.  So if they ordered 4 tickets, they could use 2 one night and come back another day to use the other 2.  They system is mobile friendly and includes a mobile barcode scanner which allows ticket sellers to walk down a long line and serve customers to expedite the will call service.

Note: In 2013 we made some major changes to this site, and many of the features described are no longer there.  Designs in my portfolio show works in progress, which change more frequently than I update this portfolio site.

My involvement with Witch’s Woods went way beyond web development, marketing, and media production.  I took on a role as the stage show manager, which ended up taking up so much time that I did neglect media.  My character was a tramp clown named “Freakshow Firestarter”, and I got to showcase my fire-juggling skills.  I realized early on that I would be entertaining and making people laugh, not scaring them.  Between shows I would gather prizes to hand out to children, and check in with the will call sellers who were using my software.  In the remaining minutes of the hour, I rode a short unicycle around the grounds while juggling rubber chickens, playing my accordion, or entertaining lines on my 6′ giraffe unicycle.  In a bizarre twist of fate, my web development skills led me to use my circus skills for profit, something I never thought would happen.  I got to learn a lot about fire performance from a talented group of fire performers, and spend some time perfecting my fire juggling and unicycling skills.  I will always have fond memories of the Witch’s Woods operation, and the huge increases to web traffic and online sales.  It was very fulfilling for my adult aspirations as well as the freaky clown inside of me. [deranged clown laugh]

For more information about this cool business, visit