Google Apps for Your Business


In case you hadn't noticed, Google, has broken Microsoft's lock on office software products. More than 2 million firms and 25 million users now handle their e-mail, documents and other office tasks using Google's web-based professional office suite, Google Apps. Today we're going to review their battery of web-based tools.

Google's office tools offer a mind-boggling array of cloud-based productivity options to even the smallest firms. Essentially everything you do at work is now available anywhere, anytime, from any online connection. Better yet, it's all free for the standard version, or $50 per year per user for the Premier version, which includes additional storage and high-quality unlimited support - things that should not be underestimated in importance.

If you don't have good web access, you are better off working with traditional desktop-based office applications. But if you use the internet and your firm hasn't had the time to check out the ever-growing stable of Google Apps, then here's a review of Google's small-business tools:

Great Tools


Google Gmail


The pros: The cornerstone of any small-business venture, Gmail supports your company's URL and looks the same from any web browser or mobile device. For example, it instantly turns even an iPod Touch into a work portal. Plus, Gmail has plenty of room for every employee's work e-mail, with 25 GB of storage per user (with a paid Apps account). Employees have complete remote access and the system requires them to log in to do their work, for total accountability. Gmail conversations are "threaded," unlike most desktop e-mail clients, which means e-mails are grouped by similar subject lines, making it simpler to track intricate, multi-party exchanges.

The cons: Gmail's logging in and managing e-mail identities is needlessly complicated. People often have trouble telling whether they're logged in to the company's e-mail system or their own personal Gmail account. Also, be prepared to be bombarded by ad-supported content, ie AdWords, as it is Google's main business, so you're pretty much always looking at them. Some may be relevant, but many businesses will be wary about opening their private company e-mails to marketers, even if anonymously.

Google Calendar


The pros: Calendar creates an accessible platform on which to schedule appointments and events in real time. It lets assistants schedule executives' appointments from a remote location and it lets your clients update meetings as they need to. It even generates e-mail invitations that include a button to respond. When employees indicate they will attend, Calendar automatically adds the shared meeting to your schedule and theirs. It also lets you merge employees' calendars with yours in order to manage your whole team's time with a bird's-eye view.

The cons: Calendar can be confusing and complex; managing the settings is the devil's work. You can expect to deploy another project management app like Smartsheet or LiquidPlanner to really make scheduling work. Also, managing permissions and privacy can be difficult and different people manage their schedules in different ways. Be warned: Integration with Outlook is futile.

Google Docs


The pros: Docs gained the most in the recent Google Apps rebuild earlier this year, which solved most previous problems regarding connectivity and collaboration. Offline content creation can actually work. Its collaborative word-processing features, which let multiple parties make revisions simultaneously, are a revelation for any fast-moving creative team. Suddenly, creating a proposal or a presentation is an almost-weightless task. Forget writer's block: Real-time chat and comments put the group's feedback right on the page and changes are saved automatically and often. You'll never look at writing or editing the same way again.

The cons: Docs will not replace dedicated desktop applications when it comes to producing slick, professional-looking documents. More troubling, connectivity can still be an issue, a scary prospect when Docs freezes up in the middle of saving a document. And forget about using the wildly unreliable e-mail attachments and publish-to-web features; both can be unstable.

Google AdWords


The pros: Though technically not part of Google Apps, AdWords still is an integral part of any growing business's basic marketing strategy. It requires a firm's marketing pitch to crafted down to a sentence and makes you responsible for how you follow up on leads from your website. If you are offering something new, with little search word competition, then it can really work to attract potential customers, if there's a demand for your offerings.

The cons: Don't spend more than $100 a month without the help of an online-search-term pro, or you're going to burn money fast. AdWords is much trickier than it appears. Also, competitors such as Facebook and Twitter are beginning to offer online ad marketing, so this market is changing fast.

Google Pack


The pros: This is our sleeper pick for small business and the first thing you should download when you get a new computer. Google Pack is a free starter office suite that contains the Google Chrome browser, Google Apps, Spyware Doctor and Anti-Virus, among other Google software, along with third-party applications such as Adobe Reader and Skype. It's a handy and efficient way to get you up and productive in just a few clicks.

Not-so-great Tools


Google Presentations


The pros: Presentations can be updated on the road and it's great for finding data in real time. Presentations also makes it relatively easy to insert basic images and videos. A template library gets you up to speed quickly and the sharing feature lets you collect and share team feedback quickly, keeping everyone on the same page. Publishing your finished product on the web or embedding it in a website is instantaneous, making it easy to reach a worldwide audience in a flash.

The cons: Presentations simply does not have the same level of features as desktop presentation packages. Design features are limited. You can open PowerPoint files of up to 10MB, the translation is clunky with dropped elements. Text boxes have feeble updating features and sometimes the layouts get skewed. Be prepared to bone up on your web coding skills to get Presentations working smoothly, especially when working with multiple browsers.

Google Sites


The pros: This drag-and-drop website development tool is useful to anybody who struggles with building team-based websites that work inside your business. If you are looking for a simple site with little visual appeal, it can save you time. These websites all exist within your branded Google Apps domain and can be edited, with permissions set from the main account. It also integrates information from other Google Apps programs well, making it a breeze to organize Google Docs, Spreadsheets and deadlines from Calendar, along with Gmail messages relevant to the matter at hand.

The cons: Despite its flexibility, there are many other ways to develop a more effective social web space, namely Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter. Don't throw away your web development tools or discount the effectiveness of web design services quite yet. Small businesses might find Sites difficult for the tech-inexperienced and just not worth the bother.

Google Voice


The pros: This is an attempt to reinvent telephony with the one-phone-number concept, complemented by plenty of bells and whistles. When a customer calls your Voice number, they get a recording while it dials your registered numbers to find you or sends it immediately to voicemail. If you have a bunch of contact numbers, then this is a nice solution to the age-old "no one answered dilema". Voice also offers transcription, message sharing, multiple personalized greetings and some spiffy international calling.

The cons: The redirecting of inbound business calls to a Google-branded automated operator can be a ticklish business proposition for those expecting a familar voice. And there have been quality issues for international calling and transcription. The novelty can get old fast.

Google Wave/Google Buzz


The pros: Wave is Google's attempt to create a universal sharing tool that lets users create real-time content in the cloud. And Buzz brings social media to Google's arsenal of products by letting users collect writings, clips, photos and videos online and share them among a group where everyone can comment on them. Both are simply fabulous technology.

The cons: Such cutting-edge tools require teams that understand exactly how they work; most small businesses that are tech-inexperienced will find using it effectively to be difficult.

Awful Tools


Google Spreadsheets


The pros: You get basic spreadsheet functions along with real-time updates of published web data and automatic compatibility with Excel and any .xls, .csv or .cls file. Nice features include an autofill function that lets you avoid having to retype the same terms over and over, the ability to drag columns to new locations and a streamlined copy feature that makes duplicates in one click.

The cons: The effective collaborative use of spreadsheets is usually limited to only one or two employees managing accounting or sales. Spreadsheets is downright lumbering compared to Excel, particularly when running in 64-bit environments. Data entry in Spreadsheets can be annoyingly buggy; lines will sometimes disappear without warning. And freezing and unfreezing panes is needlessly complicated. It's going through another extended version change which is creating script incompatibilities, which is annoying to say the least.

So the next time your thinking about starting that next document and you might want to share it with others, Google Apps might be a good fit.

Source: Jonathan Blum via entrepreneur.com

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