Wouldn’t it be great if you could get an IT guy to show you exactly how to set up your home cinema? Or a pastry chef to tell you why your muffins suck? What about a personal trainer to guide you as you train for the season?
This is the aim of Google Helpouts, a professional consulting service soon to be launched by Google. Helpouts will use the same chat platform as the existing Hangouts, allowing users to connect to thousands of experts via video conference.
Helpouts = Hangouts for experts
The concept is simple: if you’re an expert, you can give your presentation via webcam at any time, from anywhere with an internet connection, as long as you let your clients know in advance what day and time you will be online.
A Helpout set-up screen (source)
So how do you contact an expert? You do so by going into their profile, which will contain clear, truthful and realistic information about the service they offer. The profile will show their professional qualifications, which Google will verify in the case of health professionals.
Payments via Google
A Helpout session can be free, priced per minute or priced per session. Payment is made via Google Wallet, Google’s own version of “PayPal”. If you’ve purchased apps via Google Play, then you already have a Wallet account.
Meetings on Helpouts. Some are free, but others are paid for (source)
Do you want to keep the video? A recording of the Helpout can be offered if both participants (the client and the expert) have given their permission. This allows you to save the session so you can listen to it or watch it again later.
Strict terms and conditions
False promises are not permitted, and neither is spam or scams. Equally, profiles must not contain personal details, such as telephone numbers or e-mail addresses, as this would allow Helpouts’ commission to be bypassed.
Helpouts policy is very strict (source)
These restrictions supposedly protect both the client and the expert. Since it uses a closed platform, security is greater. For example, if the client isn’t satisfied, Google has a money-back guarantee.
Google decides what’s acceptable
Such security unfortunately means that Google can record Helpouts for various reasons, such as quality control or security (if the client is under 18 years of age, the Helpout is always recorded). If the subject of the Helpout is of a personal nature, however, nothing is recorded.
The main Google Helpouts categories (source)
Prohibited content on Helpouts includes explicitly illegal material (as one would expect), along with what Google calls “adult-themed content”, such as relationship advice, birth control, abortion, and sexual health.
Medical content and content relating to mental health is treated differently (source)
Helpouts reserves the right to decide what is appropriate and what is not. As a business offering its services, it has the right to regulate content. This will not come as good news to those who value their privacy, nor to the defenders of free speech.
Why Helpouts? Why now?
This is not the first time that Google has tried to save the world with a service that gives expert advice. Google Answers, launched in 2002, was essentially the same thing as Helpouts, but in text form: experts answering your questions.
Sadly, this is how Google Answers looks these days
Google Answers was not a success. Riddled with problems such as overly-stringent rules and a downright lack of popularity, it closed in 2006. It was followed by much more successful services such as Yahoo! Answers and Quora, which are free of charge.
With the success of video tutorials on YouTube and Google Hangouts as a platform for online meetings, the managers at Google must have had a major brainstorm.
The popularity of YouTube tutorials is unquestionable, and difficult to beat
Helpouts sounds very interesting, but there’s always the risk that it will suffer the same problems as Answers did in its day. The information that has been leaked so far suggests that there will be significant businesses involvement.
It’s not just a question of money (many people aren’t prepared to pay for knowledge), but also of freedom: Google requires payment through Wallet, has control over the meetings, and decides on the acceptability of the content.
So what’s the alternative? Use Hangouts on a personal basis (arrange your own meetings with experts) or look for expert advice on YouTube. Just remember, neither offers the same guarantee of security, quality or accountability.