As a big fan of online, Web 2.0 applications, I’ve long followed Google’s ever-increasing stable of web-based services, from Google Docs to Google Voice to Google Reader. Their large and growing collection of online applications and services make it increasingly possible to consider running the bulk of your business using free (or low-cost) Google applications. Even big businesses have gotten in to the act, with mega-corporations like GE giving Google’s Google Apps for Business suite a whirl. And with recent additions to the Google stable such as Postini, an email security and discoverability service, a lot of concerns about security and compliance are finally starting to be addressed.
Though I don’t actually run a business any bigger than myself, I recently took a look at Google’s offerings and how they could be used in a small- to medium-sized business setting. Here we’ll look at some of the basic tasks businesses need to accomplish — communication, productivity, and promotion — and how Google’s services, both those in their Google Apps package and among their standalone services, can help businesses get the job done – and where Google just doesn’t seem to make the mark.
One of the core functions of any business is communication, both among its employees and with clients, vendors, and the media. Google Apps combines email, chat, calendaring, document creation and editing, and collaboration tools in one suite. Other services include Google Voice (formerly Grand Central), a phone forwarding and voicemail service that also offers cheap outgoing calls.
Among these services, Gmail is easily the strongest. As part of Google Apps, businesses can quickly set up @yourdomain.com email addresses, each with its own online mailbox. Gmail’s integration with Google’s powerful search technology makes accessing archived information easy, and full POP and IMAP access means you can access email through the desktop client of your choice, including Outlook.
Online users of Gmail also have access to a variety of features from Google Labs (accessible from the upper right-hand corner in Gmail), such as the ability to save and re-use boilerplate text. The online interface also includes a simple task manager, which is shared with Google Calendar, allowing dated tasks to be placed directly onto your calendar without leaving Gmail. Gmail’s contact management is fairly weak, with nothing like customer relations management (although Salesforce.com users can take advantage of Salesforce for Google Apps, which integrates with Gmail, Google Calendar, Docs, and Google Talk.).
Postini, a newer Google acquisition, provides rule-based security and email archiving and discoverability for businesses that need to assure HIPAA or Sarbanes-Oxley compliance, or simply need a high level of security on both inbound and outbound messages. Some of Postini’s services are integrated with Google Apps Premier; others must be purchased separately. All of Postini’s features are available as well to non-Gmail users by routing your email through Google’s servers.
Google Talk is not the most popular IM system out there, but it offers more than enough power for inter-office communication. The service can be accessed through a dedicated client, a pop-up client within Gmail, or third-party clients like Digsby or Pidgin. Voice and video capabilities are decent, but lack the ability to cross over to standard phones like Skype or other VoIP systems.
Google Voice replaces traditional voice mail and forwarding services, giving users a single phone number that can be forwarded to one, some, or all of the user’s other phone numbers – or different combinations of phones based on user-created rules. Messages can be picked up through traditional voice mail, or audio files can be sent via email. Unfortunately Google Voice does not offer a business-level service that would allow it to replace a PBX system. Also, at the moment, it is not fully open to the public and requires an invite to sign up.
For keeping on top of industry news, world events, blogs, Twitter searches, and even information and updates within your organization, the free Google Reader offers perhaps the best RSS reader on the market. Since most apps in the Google suite (as well as other online applications and services) offer a stream of updates via RSS, Reader can easily become the “hub” of your business. To keep tabs on how your business is being discussed on the web, add in feeds from Google Alerts, which allows you to create searches against Google’s web, news, blog, or video search engines, as well as within Google Groups or across all five with a “comprehensive” search. All of them let you know when a particular term shows up in the top 10 (top 20 for Web, top 50 for Google Groups) search results on that term. Google alerts are ideal for tracking how your business or products are being written about on the Web – set them up for your company and brand names, as well as for general searches in your field to keep track of your competition. (Google Alerts can also be sent by email).
For communication among project groups, try setting up a private list on Google Groups, a free email list management system. Groups can be public or available only to the people you add directly, allowing communication both within your organization and with your public. Like all Google products, the ability to search your archives using Google’s search engine is the strongest point of the service, which is otherwise comparable to other mailing list services like Yahoo Groups.
In part 2 of this post, I’ll discuss Google’s offerings for productivity and promotion. To be honest, though, Google’s offerings in communication are their strong point; their productivity applications, while useful, tend to be far more limited than similar offerings, even their online competition. I’ll close with a short assessment of where Google’s services may or may not be appropriate choices for small- and medium-sized businesses. See you then!
In part 1 of this post, I discussed the communications offerings that Google offers and the role they might play for small- and medium-sized businesses. In this follow-up, I will cover their productivity and promotional services, ranging from the productivity suite Google Docs to the free hosted blogging service Blogger. While Google’s communications tools are generally quite excellent, their productivity and promotion tools are much more a mixed bag. After the overview of Google’s various services, then, I’ll offer a short analysis of how well-suited Google apps are for business use overall, as well as discuss some new tools that might make a big impact in the near future.
Google Docs offers a reasonable alternative to costly office suites, although for complex work comes up short of Microsoft Office or even OpenOffice.org’s desktop-based software. Consisting of a word processor, spreadsheet, and presentation software, Docs imports from and exports to all of Microsoft’s default formats (although it cannot save to Office 2007’s docx format yet).
The word processor is great for creating, editing, and viewing short documents, offering a range of formatting options typical to basic word processing tasks. For longer documents, however, Docs comes up lacking: page numbers can only be applied to printed output, and the size of the document itself is limited to 500K, plus up to 2MB per inserted image. This makes Docs poorly suited to the creation of technical or training manuals, as well as formal documents like legal briefs.
Spreadsheets and presentations are similarly size-limited. Spreadsheets can be up to 256 columns, 200,000 cells, or 100 sheets, whichever is reached first. Presentations started within Google Docs are not limited in size, but imported presentations are limited to 10MB or 200 slides. Below those limits, however, both applications are very strong. The spreadsheet allows you to use most common spreadsheet functions and even populate cells with data pulled from Google searches. A form generator makes it possible to collect data from, say, website users, and view the data as a Google spreadsheet.
The presentation editor is well-designed, making putting presentations together about as easy as it is with any other program. A number of themes are included, and you can import your own backgrounds as well. Giving presentations is another story, however. The presentation mode, even when you use F11 to make the browser full-screen, still includes a Google toolbar at the bottom of the screen, detracting attention from your slides. You also won’t be able to control your presentation using a PowerPoint remote.
Where Google Docs excels is in collaboration and sharing, making very effective use of the Internet to get work done. Documents and spreadsheets can be easily edited by multiple users, with tracking and permissions to make sure nothing irreparable happens. Presentations can be delivered remotely, paired with Google Talk and controlled from the host’s computer. Anything created with Google Docs can be shared on the Internet, either as a webpage or as an embedded document.
The newly released Google Apps Sync for Microsoft Outlook allows Premium subscribers to use Google Apps as a replacement for Microsoft’s expensive Exchange. Installed alongside Outlook, the program allows calendars and contacts, to be shared and searched across your company, with features like schedule availability that users expect from Exchange. Notes, tasks, and journals are not shared, but for businesses that don’t rely on them too heavily, this might be a fairly effective replacement for Exchange. A migration utility allows existing Exchange systems to be easily transferred to your Google Apps account, making the whole process transparent to your employees. (A similar program exists for Lotus Notes users.)
Google Sites, a simple-to-use wiki engine, offers further options for collaboaration. Combined with the task manager in Gmail and the Google Calendar, you can handle most basic projects fairly easily. More complex project management isn’t possible, though – for flowcharting, GANTT charting, and other project management mainstays, you’ll need a dedicated application.
Google’s Calendar is quite powerful, making it easy to add and share events. A natural language text-entry system parses statements like “Lunch with Bob Smith at Joe’s Cafe at noon on June 27th,” or you can add appointments using a form. Calendars can be easily shared, and third-party iCal streams can be subscribed to as well. Several non-Google services, like the task manager Remember the Milk, use Google’s API to allow access to their services from the Calendar interface, as well.
On the near horizon is Google’s new Wave platform, a real-time communications and collaboration tool that combines elements of email, instant messaging, wikis, document editing, multimedia sharing, and social networking. Wave is still in invite-only testing, and as with all things Google we can probably expect it to remain in Beta for a long, long time. From what Google has released about Wave so far, it looks like it will offer great functionality to a limited audience of corporate teams and departments, where traditionally wikis might have been the main form of collaboration. For small face-to-face businesses, it’s hard to see what Wave offers, but larger businesses may find it a significant step up from current collaboration platforms.
Google is, most properly, an advertising company, especially with their purchase of online advertising giant Doubleclick. Thus it stands to reason that for promoting your business, Google would be a fine place to turn.
Blogger, Google’s blogging service, offers a decent enough platform for a simple website. Features are limited, and the lack of customization options might make branding your site tricky, but it’s free, even if you post the site under your own domain name (which is simple to do and well-documented in the help section). For anything more complex than a simple blog, though, you’re going to want to turn to another service.
Google’s AdWords are an effective way to promote your business on the web. You choose how much you want to spend and what keywords to display your ads with, and Google handles ad placement on relevant search pages and sites that host Google ads. Make sure to add your business to Google’s local search and Google Maps at the Google Local Business Center as well, so you come up when people search for businesses in your area.
Can you run your business using Google applications and services?
So, can you run a business using only Google applications? The answer is, “it depends.” For small, local businesses, Google Apps along with a Blogger site and Google Voice might be more than enough to handle virtually everything they need. Businesses that do a significant amount of collaboration will find Google Docs useful, regardless of size.
For larger companies, as well as businesses that handle a great deal of sensitive information, privacy and security issues loom large. Having your email, documents, and other material stored on third-party servers is worrisome, no matter what Google’s policies promise. And Google is a big target for hackers and other nefarious sorts – though your data might never be targeted, there are plenty of people out there taking a stab at cracking Google just to see if it can be done.
The lack of customer relationship management (CRM) is a challenge, as is the lack of any sort of database (ironically, Google Base is not a user-programmable database). Spreadsheets combined with forms just don’t quite act as a viable substitute. A small sales team might manage, but a large sales team will need more appropriate tools.
Offline access is also a concern, one which is only partly solved by Google’s offline plugin, Google Gears. Gears ostensibly offers the ability to work offline and synchronize your updates when your computer is back on the Internet, but generally offers only a subset of the full capabilities of Google’s apps. In Gmail, for instance, you can read and reply to emails, or compose new ones, but you cannot attach files to emails when in offline mode. Google Docs is worse – access is read-only when offline, meaning you cannot create new documents or edit existing ones. So much for getting work done on the plane…
Finally, there’s the question of uptime. Google promises 99.9% uptime on Google Apps – but that’s an industry-standard promise that has little meaning for end-users. Attempting to log in only to find yourself in the middle of that .1% downtime can be a big hassle, especially if you are waiting for an important email or about to send an important document.
On the other hand, small and medium businesses experience security and downtime problems just as severe (if not more) all the time, whether through lack of expertise, user error, or just plain bad luck. And chances are you don’t have anything like the resources, personnel, and security know-how Google has at its disposal to protect you.
In the end, whether Google applications and services are right for your business depends on your needs. Carefully weigh your requirements and choose from Google’s menu of applications when they adequately fit the bill. Where they don’t, look at their competitors at Zoho, ThinkFree, and even Microsoft (such as Office Live, soon to offer online versions of Office applications). But you could do much worse than considering Google first.