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Web 2.0: Online Search Gets Up Close and Personal

There’s no doubt that the internet knits people together in ways never possible until Al Gore invented it.

It’s easy and quick to connect with family, friends and business colleagues around the world.

Like-minded people with similar interests can form communities, regardless of geographical distance.

New marketplaces can form and prosper.

And digging up research and information is easier than ever. If you have a question, just Google (GOOG) it. You’ll likely get bounced to places like Wikipedia, Ask.com, or About.com, the latter two of which are owned by IAC (IACI).

For an instructional video, go to YouTube. The ‘tweens all go to social networking hub, Ask.fm, for answers to their questions.

It’s life-changing stuff, for sure. But it’s not really enough.

I mean, what if you need someone to diagnose your car trouble, give gardening and home repair advice, save your soufflé, or correct your yoga posture? Such scenarios ideally require experts and face time. Not something you can get over the web, right?

Think again…

Niche Goes Mainstream

Several businesses are now taking advantage of video chat platforms in order to bring more specific expert advice to the masses.

At first, the concept catered towards more niche topics. Entrepreneurs had spotted gaps in the market and unmet needs. They were searching for advice on “ABC,” but weren’t finding decent resources.

So they fixed it – and, backed by some venture capital funding, a laundry list of niche companies emerged…

Need a software developer? Try AirPair.

Need advice on how to get your kid to eat his vegetables? You want MommyCoach.

Need to put a will together quickly, but don’t want to pay $500 an hour? RocketLawyer is for you.

You can get help on anything from your golf stroke to crafting an effective cover letter.

Some companies go even further…

For example, Maestro Market promises the tall order of hooking up ordinary people with their heroes. That is, if your hero is Richie Goldman – the guy who came up with the Men’s Warehouse (MW) tagline, “You’re going to like the way you look. I guarantee it.”

Another startup, Popexpert, made headlines last week when it came to light that actor, Ashton Kutcher, has signed up to mentor aspiring actors for just $5 an hour.

And, of course, it’s no surprise to see the big kahuna of search in the mix, too…

Google Wants to “Helpout”

Last week, Google launched its own version of an online personal assistant – “Helpouts.”

And given its dominant internet position, wealth and influence, nobody is better positioned to make online video advice work where others will fail. Here’s why…

  • It’s a natural offshoot of what’s already happening in Google Hangouts… only now, Google will take a 20% cut from every video chat session. Not too shabby. (Although it should be noted that Google won’t take a cut of any medical advice… yet.)
  • To access Helpouts, you have to have a Google+ account and pay using Google Wallet. Both apps have underperformed for Google thus far, but giving them this new focus and relevancy could revive them.
  • It’s a marketer’s dream. Companies love the new opportunity to get in front of potential customers who are actively seeking out their advice. Already, Home Depot (HD), Weight Watchers (WTW) and Sephora have free sessions available. Can you say “upsell opportunity”?
  • Currently, the experts in Google Helpouts are appointed by invitation only. This exclusivity lends some credence and authority to what they offer. In turn, that boosts both their own brand and Google’s, too. It’s win-win for both. And if you’re not satisfied with your session, there’s a money-back guarantee.

Search 2.0

The internet has already changed our lives in countless ways. And the search functionality within it makes it easy to live, work, play, and interact with others.

But could this new innovation reshape the medium again and enhance our experiences – and lives – even more? I hope so.

It’s worth noting, though, that while Google and others work towards “Search 2.0,” Apple (AAPL) is some way from capitalizing on this innovation. Sure, the company brought Siri to the masses, but many people don’t want a robotic voice giving them one-size-fits-all advice.

They want more personalized, enthusiastic, human folks to interact with. Helpouts seem to answer that basic need for community and validation in a way that Siri never will.

Ahead of the tape,

Elizabeth Carney