According to Richard, the 7th Earl of Bradford, putting his restaurants on the internet has been the single best piece of marketing he has ever done. "A strong presence on the internet shows you are up with the times," he says. "Advertising a restaurant, on the other hand, is a no-no, particularly if it's been there a long time. It flags up to people that you are not doing particularly well."
The joke, of course, is that while you may spend £400 on an advert in a local paper read by five grannies and a bored hairdresser, you can get listed on several very good websites with exposure to the whole world for absolutely nothing.
Not that Bradford finds it funny; he runs several online guides and is amazed at how hard it can be getting people to register their businesses - for free. "We ring them, we e-mail them, asking whether they want to update their details, and they ignore you. You are banging your head against a brick wall. I find it bewildering," he says. "And yet, on the other side, they are paying for a PR or advertising."
Bradford has played the system well. He first became interested in the web through his work at the House of Lords and, as a restaurateur, thought he should have a website. He then realised that a website was no good if no one looked at it, so he took over an online guide, Virtual-london.com. Four-and-a-half years later he has had so much fun that he now runs several guides, including Restaurant-guide.com, London-restaurants.com and English-restaurants.com. Restaurant-guide.com is now attracting about 40,000 visits each week.
Not only has he covered the market with a complementary network of sites, but he has also chosen titles that appear high up on the most popular web search engine, Google. Restaurant-guide.com, for instance, comes up in third place when you type in "restaurant" and "guide", because Google sorts websites by relevance. His restaurants, such as the new Covent Garden Grill, also benefit on search engines from straight-talking names. He recently changed the name of the 25-year-old Porters to Porters English Restaurant and now, when you type "English restaurant" in to Google, the restaurant appears in seven of the top 10 spots.
He urges restaurateurs to become more web-aware. "I do not understand people who have websites but no e-mail address link on it to contact. What's the point in just having the telephone number? You can get an enormous amount of information for free." Bradford's websites provide free statistics to all those businesses that register, listing how many people have looked at their page and how many have then followed a link to the business's own website - if it's there. Operators can pay more for various levels of upgrade, including adding pictures, but initial registration on the sites - a point that Bradford can't stress enough - is free.
Get yourself listed
There are plenty of websites in the UK covering hotels, restaurants and bars. Most of the well-known guidebooks have sites that repeat the information already in print - eg, the AA, RAC, Harden's, Zagat and Square Meal - plus, there are others which are purely online, such as Toptable and London-Eating. Check with each whether entry in its listings is open to anyone or awarded on merit. And remember that for some, unless you upgrade to include a photo, the entry will be free.