Google Helpouts: Channel Boon or Bane?

Google Helpouts Inc. went live this week with Helpouts, the search giant’s effort to connect folks with “experts” in fields as varied as makeup application, weight loss, yoga and classical guitar for one-on-one instructional video sessions.

In beta since August, the Helpouts site now features thousands of registered, ranked and reviewed helpers in eight categories:  Art and Music; Cooking; Education and Careers; Fashion and Beauty; Fitness and Nutrition; Health; Home and Garden; and perhaps more troubling for the IT channel, Computers and Electronics.

The bustling C&E section on Helpouts already boasts more than 500 Google-vetted experts pitching services ranging from basic IT services and computer repair to online security and specialized support for and Apple products, just to name a few.

Users can sort Helpouts experts based on qualifications, availability, price, and review ratings. An indicator in each Helpouts posting tells you if the expert is online and available now or when they are set to return so you can schedule a session. And these sessions are more than just online video chats, users and their Helpouts buddies can computer screens, collaboratively edit documents, and record the Helpout for later playback.

“Our goal is simple… help people help each other” said Google engineering Vice President Udi Manber in a blog post announcing the Helpouts rollout. “We want to use the convenience and efficiency of the web to enable everyone, no matter where they are or what time it is, to easily connect with someone who can help.

“Help might be a quick answer to a problem you’re having right now, like how to fix your garage door, or how to remove a computer virus. Or it might be guidance completing a project, like building a deck [or] learning a new skill, like how to speak French or draw cartoons,” Manber said. “Helpouts may not be suitable for every occasion, and it will take time to get used to interactions via real time video.”

Manber said the Helpouts section will continue to grow with both new categories and a legion of new experts being added over time. The concept is already obviously popular with corporate marketing, as evidenced by the number of brand-name users posting offers to guide consumers through the use of their products, notably: Sephora, Weight Watchers, Home Depot, One Medical and Rosetta Stone.

All of which raises an interesting question for the channel. Is the introduction of a new, undercutting wave of competition from the DIY IT crowd? Or is it a valuable way to promote SMB technology services and attract new customers to your brand and your business.

Like any good digital marketing conundrum, the answer, of course, is both.

It’s already obvious that a number of the Helpouts early adopters on the Computers and Electronics section are representing small VARs and solution providers. In that sense, there’s still a decent ground-floor opportunity for partners to get in on the Helpouts action and see if it bears fruit for not much of an initial investment beyond a few hours of tech time in front of a webcam.

That’s not going to make things any more palatable when a customer opts for a free session to sort out a network issue instead of call you, but with Google Helpouts, it might be best, for now, to be with them rather than against them.

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