DLS Review: Add real-time chat to your website with Olark
I have been wanting to add visitor chat to my company's website for a while now. I think that when you have a fairly small site (for a small company), chat is a great way to get to know your customers and make them feel at home.
An added bonus of using visitor chat is that it gives you a bit of real-time tracking data; you (the operator) can see approximately how many visitors are on your site at any given instant, what countries they're from, what pages they're looking at, and other such data.
With Olark installed, our site loads as usual. The only change that visitors see is a small, bright box on the lower right side of the screen that says, "Questions? Click for live chat!" They see this only when I'm online. Once they click this box, it expands into a chat window (still within the frame of the site). They can then write a message, and I get it; it's that simple!
I can also initiate a chat session. When I write to a visitor (either in reply to a message they sent me or to initiate a session), our site favicon changes into a "comic bubble" that blinks on and off, and the chat box frame becomes red. In other words, it's pretty hard to miss, even when you're in a different tab.
Chat is fast; there is no noticeable lag. The user experience is very similar to GChat or any other Web-based IM solution. It also appears to be Unicode; I can write in Hebrew, and users will see it correctly on their side (and they can reply in kind).
The chat also persists across pages, but this doesn't always work. For instance, when a user navigates from tibbo.com to tibbo.com/downloads, their chat window simply reloads in the new page. If they navigate from tibbo.com to basic.tibbo.com (which is a subdomain), the session is lost, though. This can be confusing, both for the operator (who sees a new user going online) and for the customer. If there was a chat going on at that moment, its history is lost for the user. This is not a problem for most simple websites, but for our site, it's definitely an issue that needs to be addressed.
From my side, Olark could not be easier to use. I use Miranda, which is an awesome multiprotocol chat client. Olark gave me XMPP (Jabber) credentials; that's the same protocol that is used by Facebook Chat, GChat, and numerous other services. I simply created a new connection in Miranda, fed it with my credentials, and that was it. I could also use Olark's GChat integration, but I didn't need it, so I have no idea how well it works.
When connected to Olark via Miranda, I can see what users are currently on the site and what countries they're from. All of this is shown in the user's chat handle (nick). When I hover over a user's name (or check their status message), I can see what page they are on as well.
When a user initiates a chat with me, the first two messages that I see are their current location and nickname. Then I get what they wrote, and I can easily reply. When the user moves to a different page during our chat, I can see the new page address.
One thing I've noticed is that users don't seem to like it when I initiate the chat. I tried pinging a couple of users and asking them questions, but I was completely ignored. When users needed help, though, they did use the chat box several times. One user even praised the "excellent support" that he received.
All in all, I've noticed that not many people use the chat. I would say that the number is less than five percent of total traffic. I feel that this is a good thing; I can make this functionality available to people, but I don't need to be afraid that I (or other operators) will be swamped beyond capacity. It's just a nice extra.
For these reasons, I logged into Olark and selected Customize > Visual Style > Change Theme & Colors. Olark then gave me four basic options plus lots of coloring options. I could individually set the color for every chat-box element, even with the Free plan.
Another problem I had was that the chat box, which floats on the lower right corner of the screen by default, was too wide and was painted over other site elements. Olark lets you redefine its width very easily, so I simply narrowed it a little bit, and then it fit perfectly where I wanted it.
Under Customize > Advanced, Olark lets you set a Google Analytics ID and enable Analytics tracking. In theory, this lets Olark integrate tightly with your existing Google Analytics profile and feed visitor and chat data into the Events section of Analytics.
However, this is very much a work in progress. To put it less mildly, it's currently broken. When I first started using Olark, I enabled their basic Analytics integration and the Additional Tracking Features, which are explicitly labeled as "experimental."
What ensued was a crazy spike in visitor numbers as reported by Analytics; it literally tripled the amount of visitors that Analytics registered for the site, and as a result, it skewed reports for several days (until I figured it out and disabled it).
I disabled the Experimental functionality first, and that helped somewhat. However, visitor counts were still abnormally high, and after consulting with Ben from Olark support, I completely disabled Analytics integration, at least for now.
Since I had that Analytics problem, I've had to contact Support. According to the About Us page, Olark is a four person startup, and I guess that Ben is the one who mainly handles support; that's who I spoke with. I did tell him that I write for DLS, and that I intend to review Olark (I felt that it was the right thing to do). I got the overall impression that he knows his business, and he was nice and generally willing to help.
What's nice (for me) is that they are not yet at a point where they have a "help desk." Ben wrote the Analytics integration himself, so he was able to explain the ins and outs of it and exactly what the problem seemed to be.
If you look at the Pricing page, it seems that Olark only provides paid plans that start at $15/month. But in the corner, right under the table, there's a small link to the Free Edition. That's what I'm using to evaluate Olark, but if I decide to keep using it, I will no doubt get one of the paid programs.
What's most restrictive about the Free plan is that it limits you to 20 conversations per month. It doesn't have any customization options, but I can live with that; the 20 chat/month limit feels particularly restrictive. A "chat," by the way, is when both you and a visitor exchange messages. If you write and a visitor doesn't reply, that doesn't count as a chat.
The paid plans come with some pretty cool options: you can use your own CSS for the chat box, monitor more visitors, completely hide the chat box (if you just want to monitor visitors in real-time), and most importantly, you can have the chat box completely disappear from your site when you are offline.
Olark was really easy to get started with, and it seems like a solid, sophisticated service. At this point, my main question is how many of my visitors would actually use it? So far, adoption seems quite slow. Since I have the free account, though, I am just going to let it sit there for a month or two and see what happens.
If you're looking to add chat to any website, Olark is certainly a worthwhile option.