Google Helpouts uses online video for teachable moments

The company is using Google+ Hangouts to connect customers to experts for one-on-one teaching sessions.

Richard Nieva Former senior reporter
Richard Nieva was a senior reporter for CNET News, focusing on Google and Yahoo. He previously worked for PandoDaily and Fortune Magazine, and his writing has appeared in The New York Times, on CNNMoney.com and on CJR.org.
Richard Nieva
3 min read
Google Helpouts Google
SAN FRANCISCO -- Google on Monday night officially launched Helpouts, a new marketplace that connects people to experts who can help them with things like how to play an instrument, apply makeup, or fix a computer glitch.

News of the Helpouts launch leaked earlier today, after The Wall Street Journal received an e-mail about the product. The Web site for the service has actually been live since July so that potential experts could sign up and populate the marketplace.

How it works
A user can search and browse through a number of topics on the marketplace, and connect with an expert -- or Helpout provider, as they're called on the site -- to set up a one-on-one Google+ Hangout session. Users can choose providers based on availability, price, ratings, reviews or qualifications. Providers, who are vetted and given a background check before they're allowed to join the marketplace, decide the price of their session: either free, per minute, or a flat fee for the entire session. Experts on the site are either individuals or reps from brands like Sephora, Weight Watchers, or Rosetta Stone.

"Imagine anytime you get stuck, you can connect to someone who can 'unstuck' you," Udi Manber, Google's vice president of engineering, said during a Monday press briefing here. During the briefing, the team behind Helpouts performed three demos, including one on how to zest a lemon, taught by a chef from Kitchit, a startup that helps people plan dining events. The demo was part of a larger Thanksgiving cooking session offered on the Helpout site for $20.

During a session, a user can share his or her screen and give feedback to the expert. If the expert is 5 minutes late for the start of the appointment, the session is free. If the user is for any reason dissatisfied with the session, Google will provide a refund as part of a "money-back guarantee." At launch, Helpouts will also work with Android smartphones, in case a particular session, like something on home repair, requires the expert to see closeup shots of the user's work.

Google will take 20 percent of the money made on each session as a transactional fee, except for Helpouts related to health care. For now, the company will waive those fees because Google is still experimenting with how it will handle the pricing structure for that particular category. Medical Helpouts could include counseling support, lactation consulting, or dietitian sessions, and the service will be HIPAA compliant, Manber said.

Of course, Google already owns YouTube, an exhaustive source of how-tos and tutorials. So how can Helpouts make a dent in a world of free instructional videos? "Very often what you need is not just a canned video," Manber said. "You need someone to see what your hands are doing" (like in the case of teaching guitar).

And any time there is live interaction involved, pornography is always a concern. Manber said there are ways to report abuse and immediately end a session. That could perhaps become an issue especially if lots of younger people gravitate to the service. According to the service's support Web site, customers must be at least 13 years old, while providers must be at least 18.

The potential for a major one-on-one online video marketplace is intriguing. There are a few smaller Web sites like PopExpert and Meastro Market that offer similar services, but clearly Google brings a new visibility and, to an extent, legitimacy. Manber hopes the platform will create a new way to volunteer, with respected experts in different fields donating their time for free. Companies can also use the platform to advertise new products. Google also plans to create APIs for developers, but there is no timeline for that.

And Google isn't the only tech giant leveraging one-on-one online video. In September, Amazon launched Mayday, a tech support feature for Kindles that connects a user to a customer service representative.

Last week, Google announced several updates to Google+. Most of them were photography related, but a handful were new features for Hangouts. For example, if a person is on a video chat with bad lighting, Hangouts will automatically manipulate the contrast and saturation to make the subject more visible. Features like that are bound to be useful for future Helpout sessions.