Google Helpouts: An Unwanted Human Touch?

Video calling is definitely the next step in communication, but for business, it’s a step too far. Or, at least in some instances. When I’m at home, the last thing I want is a complete stranger having a live video stream of my living room. Google see things differently and want to bring yoga lessons, home improvement advice and customer service right to your laptop with their new web app.

Its name? ‘Helpouts from Google‘.

The idea seems so revolutionary to Google that they think the service could rival ‘How To’ videos on YouTube or text based guides. Unfortunately, their shiny new offering has some fundamental flaws that could be off setting to many users. Lets take a look.

How does a ‘Helpout’ work?

Unlike previous Google offerings, there is no invite code required to use Helpouts for regular users. If you have a Google account, you’re good to go.

Experts help their customers with advice or lessons

Experts help their customers with advice or lessons

Experts are available around the clock across numerous categories such as Health, Arts & Crafts, Cooking and DIY. If they’re not broadcasting live right away, a future schedule will be displayed next to their profile letting you know when they’re next available. You can book a session in advance, too.

If an expert is available, you can jump right in; entering a Helpout is as easy as clicking on the provider’s profile. Some offer their services for free and if that’s the case then the session will begin instantly. However, if they are charging for their service, you’ll be redirected to Google Wallet to accept the charges. Google Wallet is the only method of payment and although I have no issue with Wallet itself, I find Google’s policy of only accepting payment via their own service to be an inconvenience and yet another indicator of Google’s policy of railroading everyone into using their products.

Android app for phones and tablets available in the Play Store

Android app for phones and tablets available in the Play Store

The look and and feel of a Helpout is virtually identical to a Hangout; the interface is well designed and simplistic while the video quality is excellent (assuming there’s a decent Internet connection). Android users will be pleased to discover an app on the Play store and hardcore fans might be even more pleased to find out there is no iOS support. Google say they are unable to offer iPhone and iPad users an app due to in-app purchase restrictions and commissions on the App Store.

The Faults of Google Helpouts

When discussing the success of his Model-T, Henry Ford famously said

“If I had asked my customers what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse”.

Ford’s words of wisdom have spurred innovators into creating world changing products for decades. Unfortunately, I don’t think Google Helpouts is a game changer. My main reason for this is because I’m having trouble convincing myself that consumers want to pay for live, one-on-one, virtual classes when, thus far, the prevailing Internet trend has been disengagement from live human contact with strangers. Google are ignoring fundamental behaviour of people.

To put this into a common scenario, imagine you were doing some research on mountain bike repairs. If you’re anything like me, you’ll be doing this “totally-not-procrastinating” work at 2am in an unlit room, your face illuminated by the laptop screen. No human being should have to see us like that; video chats break down a privacy barrier most people don’t feel comfortable without. The same can be said about any number of Helpout applications such as customer helplines; most people would have no problem calling one on the phone, but video chatting to a stranger makes threatening to switch insurance companies a little awkward.

Everything About Helpouts is Limited

Google are keeping a tight rein on their new creation by severely limiting the number of categories and the ways in which users can interact with the service. Currently, eight categories offer just a handful of available Helpouts across a generic range of subject areas.

No exactly a wide variety of Helpouts on offer

No exactly a wide variety of Helpouts on offer

For those interested in hosting their own Helpouts, an invitation code is required and Google are reportedly picking and choosing only a small number of specific hosts. This is in stark contrast to the YouTube free-for-all where, among the millions of unhelpful videos, the awesome tutorials and guides rise to the surface.

Everything about Helpouts is caged in which is surprising when it comes from a company that made its billions from publicly ‘open’ search engines, file hosting and operating systems.

Potential for Bad Advice

Despite screening candidates and monitoring activity like a hawk, there’s still the possibility that you’ll get terrible advice at a premium price. To reassure new users, Google have implemented a money back guarantee in the event of a less-than-perfect session. Yet this still requires the initiation of a dispute on behalf of the customer.

Google are also making the cocky assumption that their hand-picked bunch of experts surpass the infinite knowledge swirling around on the Internet that’s entirely accessible by a search engine. Users can screen hosts based on their experience or academic qualifications but this still doesn’t negate the fact that each and every one of us have had problems fixed by anonymous Internet inhabitants, forum users or Redditors.

Current Limitations, but Future Potential

In its current form, I can see Helpouts revolutionizing online tutorials in the same way Wave revolutionised email. However, it’s not a total dog with flees. There is potential for large corporate clients to use Helpouts for practical customer support where a video feed (even a one-way set-up) would be of use. Obviously, fees would come from the company’s side instead of the consumer, but it could end up cheaper than a fully-equipped call center. Employees could work from home to assist customers to reduce costs while offering the kind of personal interaction companies try their best to replicate via social media.

Some large organisations such as Rosetta Stone and Home Depot have already begun using the service in a promotional role but their content offering is of very little value. In fact, the advice on offer is nothing more than what you would have received via a traditional search online, except now there’s a company spokesperson pushing a heavily branded message in your direction.

Other uses for smaller business could be consultations or quotations for household repair jobs, demonstrations of products or simply offering another avenue to advertise to potential customers. Language tutoring could also be of significant benefit if it enabled students to converse naturally with a native speaker, as opposed to just a virtual teacher.

Final Thoughts

The main idea behind Google Helpouts is innovative, smart and useful as the Western Electric videophone; it’s hard to tell whether it’s ‘ahead of its time’ or the mish-mash technology project that should have never left the lab.

Ahead of its time or just unwanted?

Ahead of its time or just unwanted?

The fact that it’s somewhat attached to Google Hangouts could offer a lifeline and the inclusion of corporate hosts would totally change its game plan. However, there’s a huge gulf between what’s on offer and the kind of service people would actually use in their day-to-day lives.

For now, Helpouts is just a way of paying strangers for potentially mediocre advice.


Google Helpouts is a new service from Google allowing users to get instant advice from remote hosts via video feed. Everything from yoga classes to DIY advice is on offer.