Today, Google is launching a new product it's calling "Helpouts." It's a new website that allows users to get in touch with experts and pay them for "services" over video chat. Google is imagining that it will be used for things like cooking tips, home repair, guitar lessons, and even healthcare. First announced last August (and outed earlier today on the Wall Street Journal), the service is now live with a small set of partners, including Weight Watchers, Sephora, and One Medical. That list is limited by design — for now, Google is vetting anybody that wants to offer Helpout services with a full background check and keeping the categories of services offered relatively short.
The video-chat services will be offered in a wide range of prices — from free with volunteers up to $20 per hour or more. It's a model that's not entirely unlike that other for-pay video "service" genre — porn — but Google says it has no intention of allowing "adult" content on Helpouts. Users will be able to rate the experts they work with and said experts will have a few tools to block users (should it come to that). For all of it, Google gets a 20 percent cut and is offering a money-back guarantee if things don't work out.
Available on desktop and Android
Google's 20 percent cut might help explain why this service, which is largely based on the cross-platform Hangouts tool, is only available on the web and on Android — Google has not yet decided whether or how to deal with Apple's own App Store policies and margins. The website for Hangouts looks very much like a one-off custom version of Google+, and even shares some of the same Hangouts on Air features that have been baked into that product. Each expert has a landing page where users can schedule a future Helpout or start one immediately. Users are identified with their public Google+ profiles — so each party knows who is calling, but nothing is posted publicly to Google+. If both parties agree, a Helpout chat can be saved for later review.
Some of those policies don't apply to the health section of Helpouts, however, where Google says it applies slightly stricter rules surrounding a user's identity and privacy. It also claims that any health-related Helpout will be HIPAA compliant.
Although it's a small launch, Google VP of Engineering Udi Manber was bullish on Helpouts' future. Likening current skepticism about Helpouts to how some felt about online shopping in the early days of the internet, Manber repeated over and over at a press event today that "in the end, convenience and efficiency always win." Helpouts certainly do seem to be both of those things, if the demos Google showed today were any indication. The real question is whether or not Helpouts will be helpful, or at least more helpful than a web search or YouTube how-to video.