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Google Just Added Live Chat to Search Results

calliconCalling a business has never been fun. Between waiting for someone to pick up, wondering if you’ll be stuck on hold, dealing with automated menus, and finally getting a live person only to find out they can’t answer your question, what should be a two minute proposition often takes more like 20. And in the age of text messaging, even two minutes isn’t short.

Hold music may be a thing of the past, however. Google appears to be working on taking the phone call out of contacting your local business, or at least giving you the option to use an online chat function instead. They’re currently testing the new service, which connects users to business instantly using Google Hangouts.

The way it works is simple. When you search for a local business, there’s already a knowledge panel that comes up showing vital stats like phone number, address and hours. Under the new feature, that same box will have a “Chat” option. Clicking it launches a Hangout with the business, which is handy if you want to ask a quick question like whether they have something in stock.

A Beneficial Arrangement

This is a text-only Hangout, essentially an IM window—no instant video chat is available (which makes sense, since that wouldn’t be any quicker or easier than a phone call). The setup has a few advantages:

  • Google can determine whether the business has a Hangout account and whether they’re currently available. If they aren’t, the option will be grayed out.
  • Making a restaurant reservation or asking a question no longer takes you out of the browsing experience, and you don’t have to worry about whether they’ll pick up.
  • Hangouts are asynchronous, like texting. That means that if the person on the other end doesn’t have an immediate answer, you aren’t stuck holding the phone and waiting while they get it.

Right now the feature is purely experimental, and only appears in a few select search results. Google has not confirmed whether they will roll it out as a general feature; the answer will probably depend on how the test goes.

The Outsiders

The new functionality isn’t good for everyone, however. Google certainly isn’t the first company to dream up an instant chat connection with businesses. As TechCrunch points out, the messenger app PathTalk offered the same service starting six months ago. But their service requires using the PathTalk app, while Google’s is built right into the search results. If the Google feature becomes permanent, you can expect PathTalk’s appeal to plummet.

But that same convenience can be good for the businesses themselves. Chances are your business is already on Google+, which means Hangouts is built into a service you currently use. All you have to do is make sure that a staff person has Google Hangouts open on their computer and is trained to treat it the same way as an incoming customer phone call.

This isn’t essential—yet. But if Google does roll the service out for keeps, there will be a real advantage to having that little green “Available” next to your chat symbol. Unless, of course, you’d rather just leave your customers on hold.