Google Formally Launches Video Expert Network Helpouts

Google helpoutsTwo months ago I wrote about Google’s remote learning expert network Helpouts. The site has now formally launched. Google’s blog post went up last night at midnight Eastern. It’s an ambitious undertaking by Google, built on its Hangouts infrastructure. However the company is also opening Pandora’s box in a way.

Helpouts are currently available in eight categories:

Google Helpouts

Some of the video consultations are paid and some are free. If there’s a fee Google Wallet must be used and the company takes a 20% cut. However Google is also offering a consumer money back guarantee. It’s equally putting restrictions on permissible content as well as any efforts to get people to pay additional fees outside Helpouts sessions.

Google doesn’t want Helpouts to become pure marketing for other/later services. Helpouts must be self-contained and not simply tease outside services. Pricing is by flat fee or per minute (when there isn’t a “predictable length”).

Experts who violate or abuse Google Helpouts policies can be suspended or terminated. Also, what about Chatroulette style pervs who try to expose themselves to experts? (Hopefully that won’t happen.) How will Google police that?

Google says that experts on the network have been “vetted.” It’s not clear how rigorous that process is or will be in the future. Right now would-be helpers/experts can request an invitation code. In cases where services include licensing requirements (i.e., law, therapy, health care) Google says it will ask for relevant credentials. Some of the experts on the network have ratings but most currently do not.

Many queries return no results, so Google will need to get more experts to populate the system. Browsing is more “effective” than searching right now accordingly. Below are two randomly selected Helpout experts: one offering an extensive WordPress tutorial ($200) and another for cooking lessons (Free):

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There have been many online how-to communities or platforms and attempts in the past to build expert networks. Most have failed. Some vertical advice communities have succeed. To the extent this moves in the direction of “distance learning” it could succeed.

Two things will be critical: vetting or approving the providers and getting ratings from users. Quality must be maintained or the system will fail. The money back guarantee is intended to take the risk out of trying it for consumers. But most users may be initially hesitant to pay money. YouTube for example offers lots of “how-to” advice for free. It’s just not live or customized.

We may see people try and get questions answered first via free resources (e.g., YouTube, etc.) and then resort to Helpouts if they cannot. Alternatively people might go directly to Helpouts to get an answer from a real person. But Helpouts must be scheduled. In many or most cases experts won’t be available “on demand.”

One question surrounds multi-part or successive Helpouts. What about a class (e.g., language, music) in multiple installments? That concept would appear to be contrary to the individualized, live dimension of Helpouts — though most Helpouts will also be recorded (for quality control). Recorded sessions could be archived for later review or usage.

Some of the Helpouts providers clearly contemplate multiple sessions or installments. The following “business coaching for moms” provider offers a broad range of topics/services but only 15 minute sessions:

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There are many such questions that Google will need to address as it watches how the public interacts with Helpouts and the providers.

I suspect that we’ll see companies offer free, live customer service support for some of their products (or maybe employ third party experts on their behalf). I also suspect we will see lots of people trying to market themselves, their books or services through free Helpouts.

The potential for something really interesting to develop is certainly there. But there’s also considerable potential for spam and even just plain old mediocrity. That’s probably the biggest enemy of Helpouts: that experts and their advice or lessons are weak or superficial.

Google and the Helpouts user community will need to aggressively police experts and their content. Google must be patient and balance filling the system with experts with being highly selective to ensure quality.

Is there a local angle? Location isn’t an intrinsic part of Helpouts — since it’s remote learning. However I suspect we’ll see geographic experts or localization emerge over time. And a large number of the experts on Helpouts will likely be SMBs.

There will probably be many creative, unforeseen uses of Helpouts if it takes off.

What are your thoughts about Helpouts, its potential and outlook? What’s most interesting to you? Do you think Google can ensure sufficient quality and take a long enough view of the product to ensure its success? Or do you think it will flop?

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