How YouTube killed Google’s video-based marketplace

Image: AP Photo/Richard Vogel, File
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Google Helpouts never really had a fighting chance.

The search giant let users know today that the marketplace, where individuals and companies can offer their expertise over video chat, will shut down April 20.

“The Helpouts community includes some engaged and loyal contributors, but unfortunately, it hasn’t grown at the pace we had expected,” the company said in a statement. “Sadly, we’ve made the tough decision to shut down the product.”

Google launched Helpouts in November of 2013, heralding it as a way to overcome the limitations of search engines. “If you do search for a long time, you realize most of the world’s useful information still resides in people’s heads,” said then vice president of engineering Udi Manber (he recently left the company). ”Sometimes you need somebody to look over your shoulder. Sometimes you need somebody to show you the way.”

But Helpouts languished because of another Google product: YouTube. At the time, the company dismissed claims that YouTube’s growing library would make Helpouts irrelevant because of the “fundamental difference … [of] having a direct interaction with the person,” said director of business operations Christina Wire. But the fact is, much of the information people sought on Helpouts exists on YouTube or Google’s search results—where a little patience will likely yield similar answers for free. People simply didn’t feel compelled to pay money for a yoga instructor to coach them over a computer or smartphone when they could study YouTube videos.

Even so, the platform had a lot of potential. It was a big step forward in mainstreaming telemedicine, for example. With Helpouts, patients could consult doctors (who are able to prescribe medicine over video chat), nutritionists, veterinarians, even lactation specialists. For a while, Google promoted the service by waiving fees for people searching for medical symptoms. However, Google’s recent move to surface relevant medical facts above search results reflects a broader shift toward its Knowledge Graph, which aims to “show users the way” by helping them find relevant answers faster.