Google has built an empire with a search engine that answers your questions, and now the company hopes humans can do the same.
Google on Tuesday announced Helpouts, a new tool that connects users via live video chat with experts who can help them with questions about home improvement, cooking or even medical advice. Helpouts serves as a Google-vetted marketplace where approved companies such as Sephora, One Medical and Rosetta Stone can offer their services to interested parties in real-time over live video.
So far, Google has invited 1,000 companies to participate, and plans to keep the marketplace “invitation only” for now.
Vendors can set their own prices, charging users either by the minute or by the session, but Google anticipates a number of services will also be offered for free. (Google takes 20% of each transaction.) Users can choose to set up an appointment with a particular company, or if someone is available, speak to them instantly via video.
“With [Google Helpouts], we can open the whole world to everybody,” said Udi Manber, Google’s vice-president of engineering. “Most of the world’s most useful information [still] resides in people’s heads.”
The new service works in a way that highlights many of Google’s other products. The actual video conferencing is done using Google Hangouts; vendors and experts are found using Google search; payments are accepted only through Google Wallet; and users must have a Google+ profile in order to join a Helpout, creating a safe environment in which they can interact using their real identities, Manber said.
The issue of safety is magnified when users are not only connecting with strangers over video, but also paying them for their services. Google has enforced a handful of safeguards in hopes of preventing any issues. For example, users can immediately exit a video call, and report a vendor or user if there is any form of harassment or inappropriate behavior. Manber also said he has no plans to allow “adult uses” of the service.
Google must invite each company that offers a service to the platform, and all professionals are vetted and checked, according to Osi Imeokparia, Helpouts’ director of product management.
Users are asked to leave feedback after a connection ends, meaning the marketplace will be regulated in many ways by customer reviews. Users who feel their experience left them shortchanged can request a full refund, with Google picking up the tab. If a vendor is more than five minutes late to an appointment, or claims they are available but do not connect to the video conference, the session will be free.
The biggest privacy concern may come from users who want to use Helpouts for health and wellness purposes, including sessions with a clinical psychologist. Google said that Helpouts is HIPAA-certified already, which means the platform has the necessary safeguards in place to ensure the online privacy of patient information and medical records.
Despite all the areas that Google has addressed, the new tool is in its infancy, and leaves the door open for other integrations later on. For starters, YouTube is already full of self-help videos that offer instruction on everything from tying a tie to learning to play clarinet. In the future, users who find a particular teacher they like may be able to request that instructor for a Helpout straight from the YouTube page.
Helpouts hasn’t partnered with any medical-insurance companies, which means users can’t get the free or reduced coverage through Helpouts that they might get by walking into a clinic. Helpouts only accepts Google Wallet, too, so users need to either create a wallet or stick to free services.
As with all new products, Helpouts should continue to evolve with user feedback.
“If there’s one reason that I think the Internet is so powerful and successful, it’s that it brings a completely new level of efficiency and convenience,” Manber said. “And efficiency and convenience always win in the end.”
Helpouts is available in the Google Play store for Android mobile users. An iOS app will come eventually, but no timetable has been set, according to a Google spokesperson.