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Google Docs

a Technology Tuesday guest post
by Janet Crum
Head, Collection Management and Systems
Oregon Health & Science University Library

Google Docs is a free, online office suite featuring word processing, spreadsheets, presentations, and forms. It includes a variety of collaboration tools and works with any modern web browser.  Read on to learn more about this useful tool.
Reasons to use Google Docs & Spreadsheets instead of a traditional office suite
  • Google Docs is free.  If you work for an organization that has licensed an office suite for you, you may not worry about the cost–at work.  But not all organizations license office software for employees’ home use, or if they do, the license may forbid using it for anything that isn’t work-related.
  • Google Docs is available on any computer with an internet connection–and so are your documents. If you use several computers at home, work, and on the road, Google Docs can save you some hassle.  You don’t have to make sure all your documents are on your laptop/PDA/thumb drive/CD.  As long as they’re uploaded to Google, you can work on them.
  • Google Docs makes collaboration–especially across organizations–easy.
    Most organizations have network drives, Sharepoint servers, or other tools to facilitate sharing documents within the organization.  But if you collaborate with people outside the organization, e.g. when doing work for professional associations or co-authoring articles or presentations, those internal tools won’t help you. Google Docs lets you invite others to view and/or edit your document, so everyone can work on the document together and see the most current version.  You don’t have to email documents to your collaborators and keep track of everyone’s changes.  You don’t  have to worry about whether your collaborators have the same word processing software or the same version, either.  Google Docs also includes real-time collaboration tools; for example, you can view a presentation with several people simultaneously or chat with collaborators while working on a spreadsheet.

  • Your documents are as safe as Google’s servers. Is that a pro or a con?  That depends on how much you trust Google.  Google Docs saves automatically as you work, and your documents are stored and backed up on Google’s servers rather than your local hard drive.  Of course, if it’s mission-critical, save a copy somewhere else too.

  • You can easily convert documents to different formats, including HTML and PDF, and you can save a document directly to your blog as a post.
  • Forms! Forms are the newest member of the Google Docs family.  You can create a web form, distribute it via email, and have the results collected in a Google spreadsheet.  For complex surveys, you will probably do better with a tool like SurveyMonkey, but for simple questionnaires or other data gathering, Google Forms could be very handy.

  • Google Docs includes templates for lots of different occasions and purposes. Get a head start on your document by using one of several hundred templates for documents, spreadsheets, presentations, and forms–including a nice selection of holiday-themed ones.

No tool is perfect, and it’s important to understand the weaknesses as well as the strengths of any tech tool so you can make an informed choice.  So, let’s take a look at some potential problems with Google Docs:
  • Privacy: When you use Google Docs, you are uploading your documents to Google’s servers, and they are subject to Google’s privacy policies.  If you Google (ahem!) “google docs privacy,” you will find that some people are concerned about entrusting their documents to Google, and there are some issues with the way Google protects images used in Google Docs.  My recommendation: If your document contains trade secrets or other confidential information (personal information about patrons or patients, personnel information, etc.), do NOT upload it to Google Docs or any other third-party site.  Follow your organization’s data security policies to the letter, and get advice from your IT department if you’re unsure about how to handle sensitive information.  But if your document does not contain anything sensitive or confidential, go ahead and use Google Docs.
  • You need an internet connection to use it–mostly. Google does offer an offline mode for documents only (not spreadsheets or presentations).  You need to install a browser extension to use it, and you have to work from a single computer to be sure your documents sync correctly.  See Google’s Offline Help for more information.
  • Limited functionality: Google Docs performs basic word processing, spreadsheet, and presentation functions well, but the operative word here is, “basic.”  If you need high-powered tools like mail merge, pivot charts, or sophisticated formatting, you need a full-featured office suite (if you don’t want to pay for one, try Open Office, a free, open source office suite).  One possible compromise if collaboration and full functionality are both important: Get the information into your document using Google Docs, so everyone on your project can contribute.  Then, once all the information/data is there, migrate it to an office suite for processing and/or formatting.
  • Google Docs is not compatible with Microsoft Office 2007 document formats. If you want to open a document from Office 2007 in Google Docs, you have to save it in an earlier format first.
To Learn More
Ready to get started with Google Docs?  Check out the following resources:

3 Responses to “Google Docs”

  1. Alison Aldrich Says:

    Thanks for guest posting this week, Janet! I really like the way you’ve laid out the pros and cons of web-based office software. When I am giving a presentation, I often upload my Power Point file to Google Presentations so I can have a second or third backup. Yes, I am a little paranoid 🙂

  2. Hope Leman Says:

    Hi, Janet and Alison. Lots of good info from both of you.

    Here is a funny thing and shows how much I needed your tutorial. I am in the online MLIS program at the University of Pittsburgh, FastTrack. I am in a class in which a big part of our coursework entails working on a group project. I was going to say that it is a bother to use Google Docs because several of us could not remember the URL of our co-authored document and so spent quite a bit of time emailing each other to determine how to find our collaborative efforts. Well, I just went into Goggle Docs and found that two of my classmates had uploaded two versions–one a wording processing version and another a PowerPoint–of the document into my Google Docs account like magic. Oh. Thanks for enabling me to get with the program! I didn’t realize that others could insert stuff into my account without having to ask me for URL info. Duh, Hope!

    I also like Google Docs because it enables you to convert documents on the fly from one format (e.g., HTML, Word) to another (e.g., PDF).

    And I like Google Docs because I like anything that frees us from the clutches of Microsoft!

  3. Ralf Says:

    Google Docs is a great tool. But if you are concerned about privacy then there are some facts about Google Docs available. One is the already in this post mentioned issue around pictures. After more than a year a document that was deleted on Google docs is still partly accessible:
    And it is also probably good to know that after you presented with Google Docs a presentation online not only people will have continous access in the future to the latest updated version of your presentation but also you as owner will not be able to see in Google Docs that others can view that presentation. Details here: