OpenTable changed the user interface of restaurants’ pages a few months ago. It wasn’t a big design change, or big user interface change. They just moved the restaurant website link from the main page to under the more details section.

But this little change had a dramatic negative effect on our clients websites and consequently, their online marketing. We saw a huge drop, up to 90%, in referral traffic from OpenTable’s website.  The average drop was around 50% in referral traffic. That means 50% less people go from the OpenTable website to the restaurant website looking for additional information.

This change in OpenTable has had negative consequences.

Anyone who designs websites with a knowledge of user interfaces would quickly see that this was done for pretty obvious reasons. You can tell this user interface change was intentional because OpenTable made it less intuitive for users to find a popular link. They worsened the user interface by limiting choices. OpenTable had noticed that some customers clicked on the website link on the restaurant’s OpenTable page and when those customers saw what they liked on the restaurant website, they then clicked on the OpenTable widget/link inside the restaurant website (not the OpenTable page). This has financial implications.  Part of OpenTable’s pricing is that if a customers reserves through the link or widget on a restaurant’s website, the restaurant pays 25 cents (Updated March 19, 2013: the article previously listed the fee as $1). If they reserve through OpenTable’s website, the restaurant pays up to $2.50. It is important to note that if a customer that makes a reservation on the restaurant’s website using OpenTable, the restaurant will still pay the higher fee if the customer came to the restaurant website from OpenTable’s website (Added March 19, 2013).

The user interface change was unfair because it hid content that customers wanted. They clicked on it in the past and now the setup makes it more likely that they won’t. Also, it prevented restaurants from offering promotions and events to customers on their website.

Worst still, it was counterproductive because, as we discuss later on, the old format caused more reservations in total (counting both through the restaurant website widget and through OpenTable’s website) than the new format. The restaurant website is much better at selling and marketing the restaurant than the plain OpenTable reservation page. In the new format, the restaurant website was visited less. The end result is less business in total between customers and restaurants, although restaurants are paying OpenTable more. OpenTable essentially decreased a restaurant’s reservations, while netting more money.

How We Discovered This Unexplained Change

At the beginning, nobody noticed or cared about it. Little tweaks in user interface are hard to catch. Over the last few months, some of our clients started to complain that they are getting fewer OpenTable reservations through their website than they usually get. We first thought that it might be because of different reasons, seasonal, weather, etc.

We asked our clients to provide us the number of reservations from OpenTable website, and their own website over the last 12 months. OpenTable provides that.

Meanwhile, the number of clients who complained about fewer OpenTable reservations increased, even the clients who had a high volume reservations from OpenTable. We noticed that OpenTable reservations were fewer from both platforms, their OpenTable Page and the restaurant client’s website. It looked like website reservations affected more than OpenTable website.

We double-checked to make sure it was not the restaurant website. We reviewed our designs and tweaked the user interface to improve the reservations coming from the website. It did improve the reservations but it didn’t make up for what was lost. As the change in business was dramatic and sudden, we are confident that the cause was on OpenTable’s website.

All of our clients are getting less traffic from OpenTable, typically 50% but sometimes up to 90%. This cannot be a coincidence. So this user interface change resulted in our client restaurants paying more to OpenTable, receiving significantly less OpenTable reservations on their own website, and less reservations overall. OpenTable gave no forewarning of this change and didn’t make it clear what effect it would have.

Another Negative Effect from OpenTable’s Partnership with Locu

Opentable started to offer Locu to restaurants recently, compelling them to use it on their OpenTable page. Locu is a web application where you can put your menu and it distributes to multiple platforms including your website. Locu has significant disadvantages for restaurants that go beyond OpenTable.

Because OpenTable start offering Locu, they removed the menu link from restaurant profile. So no more link to the menu page or home page unless people click on more details. A marketing opportunity is wasted because of customers natural browsing habits.

At this point, we recommend for OpenTable users to have Locu removed (for several reasons).

Where Does This Leave Restaurants

Obviously OpenTable referral traffic has a huge impact. Most of the customers, before their final decision, visit the restaurant website. If their final decision is positive, they’ll reserve a table using OpenTable widget or OpenTable link from restaurant website.

Because of OpenTable profiles look like each other, restaurant websites play a big role in convincing customers to book a table on their websites. That’s the only place restaurants can differentiate themselves from competitors. OpenTable took away this option. Restaurants now have less traffic to their most powerful marketing tool, their website.

OpenTable must be aware of the reservations coming from their referral traffic, and they want to keep that traffic on OpenTable website. The Locu move is most likely related to that. They want to keep OpenTable customers on OpenTable, and force them to decide on the website without leaving the page.

We asked some clients to remove Locu from their OpenTable page, because they get a visible link on their profile. We hope that it will bring back some of the referral traffic and it will increase the OpenTable reservations.

We are watching if there is any impact on referral traffic, or increase in the reservations and we’ll let you know.