With Google’s new live-video Helpouts we might ask: will the third time be the charm? The first time Google tried to operate an expert network was Google Answers, which eventually got killed by free services such as Yahoo Answers.
The second time was Google Knol, an author network that was supposed to develop into a higher quality version of something like Wikipedia. It was shuttered in May 2012. Interestingly, that project was championed by Udi Manber, who seems to be one of the leads behind Helpouts.
Helpouts rides on top of the Google+ Hangouts infrastructure. It’s real-time video chat and also allows screen sharing if desired and appropriate. Currently there are eight Helpouts categories:
- Art & Music
- Computers & Electronics
- Educations & Careers
- Fashion & Beauty
- Fitness & Nutrition
- Home & Garden
Consultations/lessons/sessions can be free or paid. However if they’re paid Google Wallet must be used and Google will take 20 percent of the fee. Pricing is on a per-session or per-minute basis (if the time is unpredictable). Google is also offering a money back guarantee to consumers to take the risk out of trying it.
There are lots of policies that Google has built around Helpouts. Among them Google wants Helpouts to be legitimate content and not simply marketing for other classes, products or outside services. Abuse of the system or violation of Google’s provider policies can result in suspension or termination.
But what about users who abuse the system? That scenario hasn’t arisen but could (e.g., stalkers, Chatroulette pervs).
On the provider side Google says that it has screened the experts in the system:
People offering help through Helpouts can be large, medium, or small companies as well as individuals. We call them Helpout providers. They were invited by Google to participate and had to pass our screening process to qualify as a Helpout provider. Providers create and maintain listings that explain what they offer, their qualifications, their prices, and their schedules. You can find the help you need by searching Helpouts, by browsing our categories, or through direct links on the web.
Google hasn’t detailed the nature of its expert screening process except to say that in certain professional categories Google will seek licensing and other relevant information:
Helpouts providers may be asked to provide additional information before submitting a Helpouts listing in certain professional categories (usually those that require a license). Additionally, Helpouts Providers may be requested to provide additional information from a third party/independent company on Google’s behalf.
Note: Examples of categories where this information may be requested are advisory or informational health services; counseling or therapy services; health consultation services; or other professional health services.
Some of these providers are rated. Most don’t appear to be. However at the end of each Helpouts session users will be asked to rate the provider. Users will also be prompted to share favorable (or unfavorable) experiences on Google+, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.
What about SEO and indexing? Will Google be indexing provider profiles or even recorded Helpouts to help market the service? The company hasn’t indicated but I suspect there will be some indexing of Helpouts content and provider profiles as an incentive for experts to get involved and as a way to expose the service to the public.
Providers must have or create Google+ accounts. Google says, “Currently, your Helpouts profile information is based on your Google+ profile, so changes you make to your Google+ profile will automatically update in Helpouts.”
If the service takes off Helpouts could easily become another important SEO tool for enterprises, business owners and service providers, as well as a way to obtain reviews. That raises another question: who owns the content, Google or the Helpouts provider? Can the Helpouts expert record the session and later make it available on a website or YouTube channel? I wasn’t able to find answers for these questions.
While Helpouts offers very intriguing potential for individuals and enterprises (think product demos and customer service) there are also many potential pitfalls that could derail Helpouts. Free Helpouts are more likely to be marketing efforts for their providers; however will consumers pay for advice? Some will in certain cases. But in many others YouTube videos or other free resources online will work just as well.
In 2006 Ingenio (now owned by YP) launched an phone-based live advice or consulting platform called Ether. The site is still live but the service failed. Other expert and real-time Q&A networks have mostly failed. However online “troubleshooting” community Fixya seems to be doing well. And there are some specialized, paid expert networks that are doing well — for example Gerson Lehrman Group.
Regardless, expert screening, quality control and patience (from Google) will likely be the difference between success and failure for Helpouts. Helpouts can also happen or be initiated on Android devices (iOS later I suspect).
Postscript: Google told us in email that “all the providers on Helpouts were by invitation only.” Google explained that company representatives “actually met and vetted every provider on the platform and took several measures to ensure that the providers of Helpouts are of the highest quality: We will review all new Helpouts listings and meet the applicant face-to-face over live video in order to learn more about their background, communication skills and comfort level with online video.”