What’s on the markup menu for the restaurant industry?

Among the schema.org tags for marking up web pages is one for restaurants, which includes item properties for priceRange, servesCuisine, place, and menu, among others. Restaurants that use the markup language to structure their data are promised search engine optimization (SEO) benefits when hungry consumers want to see what’s on the menu at moderately-priced nearby Italian eateries, for example. They might also or alternately use the GoodRelations ontology for e-commerce to better accommodate search engines, as well as mobile and desktop apps, with service details of hours, payment options, and daily menus that are accessible in up to 50 languages.

OpenMenu has a value proposition around structured data for restaurant owners, too: Providing increased exposure to Internet, mobile and web apps, via what it aims to be a global and open standard for storing, sharing and using their menus over the Internet. The technical details are described at its OpenMenu.org site. Initially launched in 2010, it recently updated the format to Version 1.6 and currently counts about 75,000 menus as part of its landscape – 5,000 of them actively maintained and growing at a couple of thousand a week, according to CEO and founder Chris Hanscom.

Third-party developers can harness the data too, to build applications that interact with menus, like OpenMenu Search, a way for a search engine to drill down through a restaurant’s information to the menu and menu items.

As Hanscom describes it, OpenMenu sets itself apart in the structured data space by giving restaurants a highly structured format that covers an entire restaurant and everything inside it – something he doesn’t think schema.org was specific enough about. (He does say he reached out early on to schema.org, but didn’t get a response at the time about possible intersections with the OpenMenu work.)

For example, the OpenMenu format incorporates everything down to menu sizes and options, he says – say, for an item called pizza a restaurant can indicate options of toppings and sauces. Global capabilities are represented, for example, by currency accepted, which can be defined in the native language of the country where the restaurant operates, as well as in other currencies so that foreign travelers can better understand pricing, too.

Plus, the “mom-and-pop shops” that are such a huge part of the restaurant industry aren’t the most likely candidates to publish to a standard like schema.org, he thinks. In many cases their focus isn’t on being technically savvy, so adopting a specification and using it to their advantage has to be easy for them. Although OpenMenu doesn’t compete with schema.org in terms of driving SEO for the major search engines, he thinks it meets most restaurants’ ease-of-use requirements while delivering quick ROI.

“They can sign up for a free account, and we have an online menu creator to add their menus in groups and items,” he says. Facebook and Twitter integrators and popular content management system (CMS) plug-ins are part of the picture, as is a mobile site for them to manage their menus on the go. One menu can be connected to a restaurant’s Twitter, Facebook and website and mobile apps so that it needs only to maintain that single presence. Hanscom says that by making it easy enough to enter and maintain their menus, restaurants also are more likely to make key updates – including for daily specials. “And we give them analytics – we give them back what we know, so a restaurant can say how many views it’s had on OpenMenu, how many came from Facebook, how many from a tweet we sent out. So it makes sense for them to enter their data and we make it simple for them to do it.”

Doing More With the Data

With schema.org, markup is publicly accessible from an organization’s web pages, which can feed interesting uses of information beyond what the restaurant itself does with its data. OpenMenu also wants to make it easier for the development community to work with restaurants’ menu data, but in a more controlled way for driving applications that can range from online reservations systems to geo-location based services.

“We try to be as open as possible and transparent. But we have to regulate the information to make it valuable and have value to someone,” Hanscom says. Its data includes accuracy attributes around who entered and maintained it and when it wsa last updated. Through a standard rest API developers can do things like make location or menu item calls they need via an XML or JSON endpoint. “Developers can source OpenMenu for menu data, and know that for any menu controlled by a restaurant they will get immediate updates and information on changes to the menu,” he says. An update API call gives them a view of a live stream of what occurs in the database. “I think things are changing to where companies want to maintain your eyes on their pages. So many of those that used to send you to a restaurant for their menu, want to say they have the menu themselves for upsell and other opportunities.”

The two key revenue models for the service currently are enterprise access to data and premium plus accounts for restaurants (not a requirement). On the commercial front some competitors to OpenMenu are Allmenus and Single Platform, but Hanscom says they aren’t approaching it from the point of view of standardizing the data for the industry so restaurants can strengthen their online presence and companies can share the restaurant information amongst themselves. OpenMenu says it encourages others – including those competitors – to contribute to the standard it’s trying to drive. That’s no easy task, Hanscom says: “If you’re not Google or Microsoft, it can be really hard to get support [for a new standard] and [our work] had to be almost like a grass-roots effort. You develop the tools, infrastructure, everything. But people will adopt it and that ‘s what occurring.”