Last week in Aging With Geekitude, Erica offered her tips for online bargain hunting. This week, she’s trying out a new Google service. See more tech advice from Erica on Senior Planet by clicking here.
Fifty years ago when AT&T introduced the “picture phone” at the 1964 World’s Fair, I thought it would be the grooviest thing ever to have one. Imagine – I could talk to my boyfriend in California while mooning over his gorgeousness! It never occurred to me that my mom might want to use it and that she’d notice I was hung over.
Fast forward half a century: Technology for video-based communications is now affordable and widely used – but the issue remains: Who wants to get dressed or made up for a phone call, much less remember not to pick your nose and worry about body language, unless someone near and dear is on the other end? And even then… I talk to my friend Jill in Belize regularly through video calling because it’s the only way to do it cheaply over the internet, but I don’t like it.
Now Google, in it’s infinite wisdom, has found a use for video calls that actually makes sense: Google Helpouts, for when you just have to be there.
What Is Google Helpouts
The concept is a good one. Google is the search engine most of use to find information, including how-to info, be it Indian cooking tips or help with a computer. Google realized that our search results would be even more helpful if the help we got was face to face – or at least, if you and your helper could see each other through video conferencing. You want to learn to play the guitar? Then you’ll need to see your teacher demonstrate fingering. You need advice on how to restore some family photos? The restoration expert will need to see those photos before he can advise you. You want to learn how to de-bone a chicken? Watching someone actually do it is the only way.
Google Helpouts aims to put helpers and helpees together through video conferencing. Think Skype, except instead of your grandkid or bestie on the other end, it’s a savvy stranger who is ready to convey skills and information.
How Google Helpouts Works
You can search for teachers on Google Helpouts by topic, hire one for an hour or more by using Google Wallet (it works like Pay Pal) and voila! You make an appointment, connect with your helper over video and before you know it you’re learning a C chord on the guitar or getting help with your pesky printer. Some teachers even offer help for free as a way to get better known.
The only problem with Google Helpouts is that you might need a helper to start using it. Like a lot of interactive sites, when it works it’s great; when it doesn’t, it makes you want to tear your hair out.
Testing, Testing: the Plugin from Hell
To try Google Helpouts I decided to look for help with with my dog’s constant barking, which has made me a neighborhood pariah. I found Banfield Pet Hospital, a nationwide chain, which provides a vet for a 15-minute free advice session. What an opportunity! I used Helpouts to set up a time, 3pm, but I had no idea how to find my vet and connect with him or her at the appointed time until I checked my email and found a notification from Google Helpouts with a link. At 3pm, I used the link to go to the site and saw a button saying “Join Helpout.” I clicked – and got a screen that told me to update my plugin.
So much for getting help with dog barking. Now I had a new problem that I needed help with: how to update the goddamned plugin. I had no idea what a plugin was, but I clicked on the box and tried for hours to install it with no luck. That was the beginning of a daylong struggle to get the site to work. I could feel my blood pressure skyrocket and that unmistakable panic that rises in my throat when I’m struggling with my computer and I hit a brick wall.
Finally I messaged the vet my phone number through Helpouts and talked to him on the phone the old fashioned way, which calmed me down. He gave me some good advice and apologized for not being able to help me with my plugin problem. I made an appointment with Kenny, my computer consultant, and took the dog for a walk to stop the barking.
Kenny S, who happens to be on Google Helpouts himself, took over my computer remotely through “Team Viewer.” No surprise, the plugin worked just fine for him. Grrrrr.
Reassuringly Kenny told me that Google had interviewed him before he was allowed to offer a service on Helpouts. Screening by Google ensures that scammers won’t rip you off.
(In case you’re wondering what a plugin is, I found out it’s a piece of software that allows a web browser to display content, like video, that it wasn’t originally designed to display.)
How to Use Google Helpouts
- Watch the video There’s a short video on the Home Page that’s somewhat explanatory – but Google made the link as invisible as possible; you’re better off clicking here to view the video on YouTube.
- Get step-by-step help You can also access how-tos for setting up an appointment, paying for help and accessing Helpouts on your mobile device in Google’s help center.
- Make sure the plugin works You probably already have it on your computer if you use Google, and who doesn’t, but if you have problems with it like I did, get your version of Kenny S or any 12-year-old to uninstall and reinstall it.
- Read reviews to find a good helper Once my plugin was fixed, I found web designer David Kutcher, another free helper, who looked at my website and gave me some great ideas on how to improve it. I asked him why he was free, since he was obviously an expensive consultant in real life. He reiterated what Kenny S told me, that free isn’t necessarily bad on Google Helpouts. Helpers use the service to build their businesses by giving free consults, racking up good reviews and making contacts. Like Amazon, reviews are the way you choose a helper in the first place. I would certainly take a chance on a paid Helper who is inexpensive and has a lot of good reviews.
- Pick a date and time for a session You get to pick a date and time for a session, after which you should get an email that will send you to a link for “Join Session.” You can message a helper before signing up by hitting the “Ask so-and-so a question” link on the helper’s page. Hopefully, you will get an email back.
- Join the session and you will see your helper on-screen If your plugin works, a screen will pop up with your helper’s face. Scroll over the margins to find the mysterious icons that allow you to do stuff on the site. When you scroll over an icon you’ll find out what it means.
- If you don’t want your helper to see you in your jammies hit the videocam icon on top and you will be invisible. But if it’s an interactive lesson, keep the camera on and make sure you comb your hair first.
You’re on your own from here.
If Google ever makes this site more user-friendly, it may become as ubiquitious as Gmail. In the meantime, happy Helpout hunting.
Erica Manfred is a journalist, essayist and humorist who writes about everything from dentistry to divorce to fantasy fiction. Friend her on Facebook.