Google Apps: Docs, Groups, and Sites

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Google applications are free, web-based tools that offer ways to collaborate and manage documents. In this chapter, we’ll discuss Google Docs, Google Groups, and Google Sites. Google also has a special nonprofits page, which shows you how to leverage their tools specifically to promote, manage, and connect your organization. To learn more, visit: www.google.com/nonprofits.

Google Docs lets you create and share documents, spreadsheets, and presentations online.

Google Docs is a way to share your work online and collaborate in real time. The platform is free to use, and you can access your documents from anywhere you have an Internet connection (including through a BlackBerry or iPhone). Google Docs allows you to create and share documents, spreadsheets, presentations, drawings, and forms. The interface is very similar to Microsoft Office programs like Word, Excel, and PowerPoint. If your organization uses files that were created in these programs, you can upload them to Google Docs and they will retain their formatting.

Multiple users can edit the same version of a document in Google Docs.

Once you have created or uploaded a file to Google Docs, you can email a link to it to as many people as you want. Each user will receive a secure link to the document, and based on your specifications, the user can view and edit the document, or just view it. The platform tracks changes and saves previous document versions. Users can even make edits simultaneously, and their changes will show up in real time. Because the document is stored online as one version, you can avoid passing multiple drafts back and forth via email. This method will reduce the time you spend sorting and merging multiple people’s edits, and it eliminates confusion over whether everyone has the most up-to-date version of a file.

To get started, visit http://docs.google.com

Click to open interactivity Google Docs lets users edit one document, rather than working in multiple versions.

Google Docs lets users edit one document, rather than working in multiple versions.

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Google Groups incorporates documents, but is also a system of robust communities.

Where Google Docs is mainly a platform for storing and editing files in a central location, Google Groups allows you to connect with users on a deeper level, with greater interface customization. If you’re not familiar with Google Groups, it is essentially a huge collection of discussion groups centered on a wide variety of topics. By going to http://groups.google.com, you can search or browse for information in existing groups, make a group of your own, or join a group. Groups are public or private; if you want to join a private group, you simply have to click a link to email the group administrator and request an invitation.

From within a group, you can reply to discussions or post a message or question of your own. You can read discussions right on the group page, or choose to receive group messages and updates via email. Google Groups also allows you to create webpages right inside your group, which will be explained further in the section below on Google Sites.

Members can customize the group’s appearance and create personal profiles.

You can incorporate your organization’s branding by selecting photos, colors, and styles to give your group its own distinct look. As with Google Docs, group members can upload files and share their work with others. Each group member can also create a personal profile, including a picture and a quote. This feature allows you to share information about yourself and learn more about volunteers and supporters who may work or live remotely.

Click to open interactivity Send a monthly newsletter through your Google Groups membership list.

Send a monthly newsletter through your Google Groups membership list.

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Google Sites lets you share information and can be edited by multiple users.

Many nonprofit organizations use Google Sites as a tool to easily build websites and share information. Google walks you through the process so that building a site is as simple as editing a document. Google Sites acts as a single place to bring together all the information your organization needs to share, including docs, videos, photos, calendars, and attachments. You can collaborate with staff, volunteers, or members of your organization to edit the site to keep it fresh and current. You may let as many or as few people view your site as you want.

Google Sites lets you share information and can be edited by multiple users.

Google Sites is great for sharing information in a professional-looking way at no cost. As with Groups and Docs, the site owner can customize privacy settings so that the site is public, private, or viewable by a list of designated users. You can also specify who can edit your workspace by inviting others to be owners, collaborators, or viewers. The “File Cabinet” is an online place to store and share files. Use the “Insert” feature to embed all types of content on the site, including videos, calendars, documents, spreadsheets, photo slideshows, and gadgets.

If your goal, however, is to build an online community for members of your organization, Google Sites is not as robust as Google Groups. While you can create a page about an individual (e.g., an online resume), Google Sites does not have a designated “member profiles” feature. Additionally, there’s no discussion board. You can post announcements for site viewers, but this feature is more of a one-way communication tool. Users cannot comment or respond to the announcements on the site.

Explore Google Sites by clicking here: http://sites.google.com

Click to open interactivity This video provides an overview of Google Sites.

This video provides an overview of Google Sites.

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Report card: These Google applications are free, but offer different capabilities.

Google Apps are all free to use.  (Note: Google does have an Apps package available for businesses, and nonprofits are eligible for a free version of this more advanced service.)  Each of these Apps has capabilities that differ slightly from the others, so when you’re exploring them for your organization’s use, consider which features are important to you.  Here’s an overview of each App’s pros and cons:

Google Docs:

  • Benefit: Easy to upload existing files; great for collaboration in one central location.
  • Benefit: Multiple users can make edits simultaneously; edits tracked in real time.
  • Drawback: Not great for building an online community; lacks discussion board and member profiles.
  • Security: Low; option for users to enter a password, but you should not post confidential material.
  • Skill level: Moderate for administrators (should be comfortable posting content to sites such as Facebook); easy to moderate for users.

Google Groups:

  • Benefit: Quick and easy to set up; great for sharing ideas and staying in contact.
  • Benefit: Discussion boards and member profiles.
  • Drawback: No real file structure for organizing documents.
  • Security: Low; option for users to enter a password, but you should not post confidential material.
  • Skill level: Moderate for administrators (should be comfortable posting content to sites such as Facebook); easy to moderate for users.

Google Sites:

  • Benefit: Easy and quick to set up; great for sharing ideas, staying in contact, and creating an online community.
  • Benefit: Can post video and customize a site’s look.
  • Drawback: Requires more time and skill to set up than Groups.
  • Security: Low; option for users to enter a password, but you should not post confidential material.
  • Skill level: Moderate for administrators (should be comfortable posting content to sites such as Facebook); easy to moderate for users.

The report card and feature comparison spreadsheet, available for download in Chapter 1, displays a full evaluation of these Google Apps.