The Small Business Guide to Google Apps
originally appeared on the American Express OPEN Forum, where Mashable regularly contributes articles about leveraging social media and technology in small business.
Google Apps for business has a number of benefits over traditional business IT and desktop software. Using the full suite essentially places all of your data and entire workflow in the cloud, meaning you can access it all anywhere, any time, from any Internet connection.
At $50 per year per user, the fully integrated apps system is certainly cost-effective, and even adding the free versions of Gmail (), Calendar (), and Google Docs () into your workflow can keep your employees coordinated.
For more casual users, or even those who might not be acquainted with Google Apps, here’s a guide to how the software can benefit your small business.
The many advanced features of Gmail really make it a leap forward in the web-based e-mail space, and a lot of these are ideal for business.
If you’re not ready to take the full plunge into the paid Google Apps suite, you can still configure Gmail to function as your business e-mail client through your existing domain name by following the steps outlined in my post, “How to Set Up Gmail as Your Business E-mail Client.”
The first big advantage of Gmail, like all the apps discussed here, is that it functions in the cloud. You don’t have to worry about downloading messages to multiple locations or syncing various devices. Your inbox will look the same from any web or mobile connection. And with 25 gigs of e-mail storage per user (with a paid apps account), it’s unlikely you’ll ever have to clean your inbox or delete old messages.
Gmail works a bit differently than traditional desktop clients and webmail services in that conversations are “threaded.” This means that e-mails with the same or related subject lines are grouped together in a thread so you can see all the messages sent and received on a topic in one place. When a new message is received, the entire thread is bumped to the top of your inbox, making tracking complex and multi-party conversations easy.
Gmail also has a chat feature built right into the interface that lets you send a quick update or discuss a project with an employee if you’re not in the same office. Chats are also stored in Gmail so that you can search and refer to them later.
Google () search, the asset that started it all for the company, is of course built right into Gmail, which makes finding information from e-mail conversations (even very old ones) extremely efficient.
Additionally, Gmail Labs offers some extra settings for your inbox that can be extremely valuable for business use:
- Signature Tweaks puts your e-mail signature before the quoted text in a reply the way that Outlook would.
- Default ‘Reply to All’ allows you to reply to group e-mails with one click, instead of from a drop-down menu.
- Forgotten Attachment Detector will notify you if you’ve mentioned an attachment in an e-mail, but forgotten to add one.
- Undo Send gives you a few seconds after sending a message to click “undo” in case you forgot something, or sent it to the wrong party by mistake.
- Title Tweaks is a great feature that puts your unread message count first in the title of the inbox web page. If you have many windows open while you’re working, you’ll still be able to see when new messages arrive.
Google Docs is a web-based suite for word processing, presentation building (similar to PowerPoint), spreadsheets, and web forms. All the work is done in a web browser, and all the data is saved in the cloud.
The software can be a bit quirky at times, which may frustrate users of more stable products like Microsoft Office, but the payoff in online storage, shareability, and collaboration options may be worth the adjustment for many small businesses.
Because the data is online, streamlined document sharing and collaboration are big perks with Google Docs. Any file you’re working on can be shared with individual team members, or the entire group within the apps system. You can also set permissions for specific users to view and edit documents. And, multiple users can simultaneously view and edit documents, which can be useful for real-time collaborative projects or presentations during conference calls. You can also grant permission for those outside your office network to view and edit documents, which can be especially useful for sharing information and presentations with clients or colleagues.
As you create and share documents, your Google Docs dashboard may start to get a little messy. Be sure to create folders to keep your work organized just as you would on your desktop. You can also share entire folders if you need to collaborate on multiple documents related to the same project.
Google Calendar provides an efficient and intuitive way to keep appointments and events synced across your entire business. With calendar sharing and permissions (similar to those in Docs), you can add other employees’ calendars to your own, and vice versa, in order to see and manage the big picture of your team’s time.
For example, if an executive has an assistant, their calendars may be shared so that the assistant could manage his boss’s appointments remotely from his own account. It’s also a smart tool for coordinating meetings, calls, and shift staffing for multiple employees to avoid scheduling conflicts. Sharing multiple calendars with one “master calendar” creates a color-coded scheduling table for the coordinator that updates automatically when users make changes or additions.
The Calendar app can also be used to create events through Gmail. By adding your employees’ e-mail addresses to an event, they will receive an invitation to respond. Responding ‘yes’ automatically adds a shared event to your calendar that each invitee can view and add notes to. It’s a smart way to coordinate meetings and keep everyone in the loop.
Google Sites is a drag-and-drop web development tool that you can use within your business’s apps to create online information hubs for employees. The websites you create exist within your Google Apps domain, can be public or private, and permissions for employees to add, change, and contribute information can be set from the main account.
Beyond simply being a WYSIWYG web editor, Sites makes it easy to integrate data from other Google Apps into dynamic pages that team members can use to collaborate on projects. Integrating spreadsheets or data charts from Docs, a deadline schedule from Calendar, and team-specific messages from Gmail could essentially create a one-stop project dashboard full of dynamically updating information.
Sites here can be purely functional or informational, or with the aid of some built-in templates or a good designer, a full-fledged dynamic public website for your business that team members have easy access to.
Google Groups have long been public forums where users across the web gather to discuss specific interests or get technical support. Groups for business brings that same functionality into your private internal network.
E-mail can sometimes be cumbersome when coordinating a team. When you need a central space to collect ideas and share documents (but you’re not interested in building a web page in Sites), Groups offers a solution.
Employees can create discussion groups on their own and subscribe, either by e-mail or via a Groups dashboard, which lists new posts like a news reader.
Rather than e-mails going out to individual inboxes, a group thread remains visible to all of your subscribed team members, and users can go back to it for reference, to add more information, and even share docs and calendars.
Using Groups for business discussions and project management creates a communal and searchable database of information that employees can go back to whenever needed.
Google’s recently launched Google Apps Marketplace allows developers of other business web apps to integrate their offerings with Google and sell software directly to Google Apps users. The marketplace currently has over 50 partners, including Intuit, Zoho (), and Aviary (). This additional space for third-party software means that Apps users will have even more options to tailor their suite for specific business purposes.
Smart Integration Across the Board
While each app has worthwhile features, perhaps one of the best advantages is the way that they all integrate with one another. Documents and appointments can be easily shared via e-mail, and your inbox can be used as a portal for productivity via embeddable widgets, chat, and other notifications.
If your small business is ready for a web-based, collaboration-minded IT solution, Google Apps is certainly a cost-effective way to go, and you can investigate the free versions simply by signing up for a Gmail account to determine if the suite is right for your workflow.
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