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Get real-time help with Google Helpouts

(MoneyWatch) When you need to learn a new skill, where do you look? Increasingly, Google (GOOG) has the answer. Not directly, of course. Whether you want to reformat a hard drive, learn to juggle or make waffles, people follow search results to content sites for step by step directions.

Apparently, Google wants to stop being the middleman in this exercise and actually deliver the content directly to you. That's the idea behind Helpouts, just launched this week.

    Here's how to visualize Helpouts: Imagine using a Google Hangout session to teach a friend or co-worker how to perform a task using live voice and video. Now replace the co-workers with strangers, and you've got the concept in a nutshell. Google has created a real-time help platform that leverages the interactive, live video of Hangouts to let tutors, teachers and experts offer their services to the world.

    Training sessions are available in a variety of flavors. You can find classes that are available instantly -- the tutor is online, waiting for students to request a session -- or via scheduled classes that anyone can sign up for (and get automatically added to their Google calendar). Some classes are free, others are not. Tutors set their own rates, and I have already seen a vast range of fees that span from $1 to $75 per class.

    Right now, classes are available in a narrow range of subjects, such as computers, music, fitness, health, and home and garden. Google is clearly starting small, but has big plans to roll out Helpouts in more categories and with ever more instructors.

    How good is the instruction? So far, not bad, based on a couple of free sessions, though your mileage will vary since every instructor is an independent contractor. Google has partnered with companies like Sephora and Weight Watchers to ensure quality as well. And if you don't like the experience, Google offers a money back guarantee.

    Online and distance-learning is an increasingly useful tool for acquiring new skills, and Google's move is a savvy one. The future of the service, though, depends on the company's ability to ensure high quality instruction as it continues to scale its offers to more categories and to more customers.

    Photo courtesy of Google

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