While Google built its highly profitable search business atop a complex mix of algorithms and machine learning, its latest initiative actually depends on people power: Helpouts, which allows users (for a fee) to video-chat with experts in particular fields.
“Our goal is simple: help people help each other,” read a Nov. 4 posting on Google’s corporate blog. “We want to use the convenience and efficiency of the web to enable everyone, no matter where they are or what time it is, to easily connect with someone who can help.” The company positions the service as capable of solving problems big (learning a new language, for example) and small (fixing that pesky garage door, or updating computer software); in addition to just chatting, users and helpers can collaboratively edit documents, share screens, and record conversations.
Google has rolled out the service with a few brands in place, such as One Medical and Weight Watchers, and promises that it will expand its portfolio of helpful brands and individuals over the next several months. Existing categories include Cooking, Art & Music, Computers & Electronics, Education & Careers, Fashion & Beauty, Fitness & Nutrition, Health, and Home & Garden.
Some Helpouts charge nothing for their time; for example, the “Cooking” section of the Website already features a handful of chefs willing to talk users through baking, broiling, slicing and dicing for free. A few vendors in the Computers & Electronics section, by contrast, charge $2 per minute or even $200 per Hangout session for advice on WordPress setup, Website design, and more.
So why is Google doing this? There are plenty of Websites that already dispense advice, although most rely on the written word—Quora, for example, lets its users pose text-based questions and receive answers. There’s also rising interest in Massive Open Online Courses, also known as MOOCs, in which thousands of people can sign online to learn about something new. In theory, Helpouts (if it’s built out enough) could make Google a player in those markets, as well as specialized verticals such as language learning—and earn some healthy revenue in the process.
And just as long as some enterprising doctor doesn’t try to conduct a Helpout in organ removal, this latest Google initiative should remain controversy-free.