However, for simplicity, versatility, UI, and sheer elegance, newcomer Olark takes the cake. Originally called Hab.la, this Y Combinator startup has created - dare we say it? - the perfect or nearly perfect chat product for small businesses, ecommerce sites, or run-of-the-mill NMDs who like to add that extra touch of real-time accessibility to their sites or blogs. Read on to see how simple we really found it (no code needed, folks!) and the insane tricks we were able to pull using Olark chat.
Now, embeddable chat is nothing new, but what if you want to use chat to direct another user around a site or sites that you don't control? Or what if you don't have the technical skill, access, or patience to insert the code to embed a chat widget?
That's the coolest part about Olark. We signed up for a free account, and within a couple minutes, we had the ability to chat with users across a multitude of websites. It's as simple as pasting the link to the page you want to chat on, then copying the Olark-generated short URL and sending it to any user you'd like to chat with. Olark works nicely with Google Talk and a number of other chat clients.
Here's what the chats looked like in Gmail:
And here's what it looked like on ReadWriteWeb, where we could have, but did not, embed any additional code:
And here's what it looked like on Slashdot, where we couldn't have embedded the code if we wanted to:
We also tried embedding the chat widget on a Blogger site, and we got the added feature of knowing exactly what page the user was on as he browsed through the site. This notification could be less messy from a UI perspective (we got some very long links in our Google Talk chat windows), but it's a great feature nonetheless.
These are all just free features; paid features are even more exciting - and quite affordable, starting at $5 a month. These features include the ability to have multiple chat operators, transcripts of conversations, offline support, branded chat widgets, and user details.
Company rep Roland Osborne emailed us about the company's roadmap, saying, "As we build and refine the easiest live help system out there, we envision Olark becoming so much more; let's just say that we have a few tricks up our sleeve that will revolutionize how businesses acquire qualified leads to increase conversion and engagement on their websites."
You can check out an early (back before the name was changed from Hab.la to Olark) demo of the product below:
We also got to test some of the "hidden" features of the app. Our favorite was a !push command that automatically redirected users to the page of our choosing. While we're sure this comes in handy for ecommerce sites that need to direct users' attention to certain pages or research teams that need to share resources, we simply liked shoving our friends to http://bing.com for laughs.
We definitely recommend Olark for the small business or ecommerce site owner who wants to try online chat support. And for real-time freaks who want to chat about hot blog posts, this provides another option - although a multiuser "room" option might be even better for that.
Even in its early stages of development, with the bugs and beta-ness that implies, it's a top-notch product of a smart team. We'll be keeping an ear to the ground for more Olark updates in the future.