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April 26, 2008

Google Docs Lives to Share the Words

Mike Riversdale wrote the best article I've read about Google Docs. "Google Docs ... so what - the ONE reason why you should care" doesn't talk only about Google Docs, it's also about Zoho, wikis or any other tool that lets you write, collaborate and share your documents. It outlines the major difference between Google Docs and office suites like Microsoft Office or OpenOffice: Google Docs is built for a connected environment.
Documents (PC-based I'm thinking) are fundamentally about "one person". The document you edit looks lovingly into your eyes proclaiming ever lasting love just for you. If someone else tries to muscle in on this close(d) relationship they will get told to go away, I am with someone else.

Of course the words inside the document want to be loved by all and to love all. They force the document to dump one person and love another in a serial monogamy type of way. The document that was only for you will quite easily tell you to go away as they are now in a one-on-one relationship with someone else...

This issue - words love all / documents love one at a time - is a fundamental issue that many have tried to solve using any number of clever means. We've had software attempting to mediate the differences - every electronic document management (EDMS) system you've battled against lives this category. We've had consultants claiming to solve it via changes in work practices - 'workflow" and the bottlenecks they employ.

The most common way employed by everyone ever is ... copy the document. The words love this - they can love more and more people, more words can join them as they spread around the network - you can put in your words, I can add my words, Stevens from Accounts can remove the words he doesn't want - the words are out there, they love to be free and are loving all.

But once set free they're bloody near impossible to reign back in, for a start where the frig are they - out there in the wilds of the electronic world running free is all well and good until some poor sod has to try and reign them in. (...)

Google Docs doesn't live in the 'document' world. Oh it has similar naming conventions, it uses all the jargon that we're used to and it pretends to be a document ... but it's not because it comes from the 'words' world view. It knows that the words you're gonna edit are, 99.9% of the time, going to want to be loved by many more than you. And being on the Web they know that the world of connected people at your fingertips is massive. Not only is there the list of attractive people in your contacts list but there is everyone with an internet connection!

Google Docs lives to share the words:

* knows that words want to be shared and that's why you've typed them.
* its world view knows/understands its connected environment
* its capabilities are built to use this environment

{ Text licensed as Creative Commons. }


  1. The power of Google Docs has, at best, been only partially understood so far. This is a paradigm shift that putting Word online will not come close to. Sure, Google Docs can work as a traditional word processor, and I use it that way sometimes, but the true power is in connectivity. That's why it is better than Buzzword or other online processors. They understand the idea of word processors, but Google has gone beyond that with Google Docs and changed the ways in which we can work.

    What's going to break this all loose? It's not going to be a marketing campaign. So far as I know there is almost no advertising for this service. Instead it's going to be a case of individuals doing something that involves others and they will say, "wow, this is unbelievable. If it could do _____ it would be even more powerful." Those people will find out that it either can already do ____ or that the feature they want is there next week.

    We're in the middle of a paradigm shift. Our kids will wonder why we would ever use some program on our computer that stored files on our computer, and was only good for printing things. They simply won't understand how we could have gotten anything done.

  2. I'm still waiting for the offline access of Google Docs feature to be rolled out to me. It certainly is taking a while for Google to get that out to everyone. Until then, Google Docs is not practical for offline usage. There also isn't as much power as there is in a client like MS Word.

  3. I wrote an article comparing Google Docs to Office a couple of weeks ago (disclaimer: I'm ex-MSFT) -

    What was surprising in reviewing the two was that Google Docs did things better than Office or that Office plain couldn't do. This should be a big worry for Microsoft.

  4. """Google Docs lives to share the words"""

    I personally love the tool and use it every day but I was surprised that I never found my public documents (few short tutorials) on search engines.

    In fact Google doesn't want public documents to be found via any search engine. From a Google docs thread: """ Gogle Docs published pages are prepaired against being found by search machines. """ That's also probably why there's no friendly searchable URL.

    I think it's worth knowing if the idea is truly to "share" the documents to the world (through search engines).


  5. @JyvYn:

    I just got the roll-out a few days ago and it showed up on two normal Google ids as well as two different Google Aps accounts I work with (and wasn't even sure they were putting it into Aps yet, they are!).

    I was concerned about how using Docs on multiple IDs and on multiple computers with this offline feature would work (or if it would). So far everything have tried just works. When it asks to create an icon for offline access it creates different icons for each mode in which you might be using it, but if you just use the URL instead of the icons it prompts you for which accounts data you are trying to access. I've been pretty impressed with it all so far.


    I think the reason it works as it does has to do with the security model they are using. Each document has a fairly random looking string associated with it so that only people who you have shared that full URL with can actually get to the document. This is what is often called "security through obscurity" which is less than ideal. The only alternative would be to have each user you shared a document with to have a Google ID for authentication. If they did that then many people (including me) would probably complain about "walled garden" and "lock-in" as it is the approach used by Yahoo, Facebook, and others, demanding that you sign up for all services just to share a single capability with another user. (This is how such companies arrive at astronomical number of e-mail users, most of which never sign on to check their mail on those services).

    You can, of course, publish the URL for one of your documents on a web page or other public source and everyone clicking on it will see the page... and at that point it will probably show up on search engines as well, but for other documents that is an undesirable end, and they allow you to instantly change the secret part of the string if you think that has happened. Until (or if) there is some sort of universal Internet log-in mechanism (like Open-ID) vendors will be forced to choose between "security through obscurity" and "walled garden" approaches. So far I think Google's approach is the lesser of two evils (keeping their motto in mind).

  6. Hi MacBeach,

    """ You can, of course, publish the URL for one of your documents on a web page or other public source and everyone clicking on it will see the page... and at that point it will probably show up on search engines as well """

    That's what I thought also but it's not the case for its content (also confirmed on some threads in the Google Docs Google Group).

    For example in this Blogger post I link to a public Google doc since 4 months ago but you won't even find the doc title through a web search engine.

    So when you publish a doc *publicly* it means it is accessible only to people you invited or the one who came on a previous webpage you control and who follow your link, not for people who are searching for the theme or content your writing publicly about via a search engine. I think this is limiting the potential of sharing a doc to the world.

    I can respect this choice but I would have like this to be clear on the publish tab.

    I can understand the security concern but It's like if Flickr decided that public photos won't be searchable through their tags.

    I can't imagine it's impossible to add barriers, like:
    - option must be activated first
    - add a scary red lava lamp indicator when a public document is searchable ;)
    - send an automatic mail ~"Are you really sure you wanted to publicly publish this doc as search engine searchable?"

    Anyway for me there's a missing link between Blogger (for small post like all Blogs), GooglePages (for small few static pages) and something like Google Docs which is great for reasonable size documents but which seems to be indented for a somewhat limited audience :(


  7. Thanks for sharing my thoughts and I hope/know they will assist with the paradigm shift that Google Docs (and the like) are presenting us with.

    @bgfay: What's going to break this all loose? - my view, it's happening already as the "young 'uns" (young in age and/OR point of view) come to expect it. I think we're at the very beginning of the paradigm shift and no-one really knows the consequences of it ... not even Google who are pushing the boundaries.

    @Jyvyn - offline Google Docs is a hand back to those not online and isn't meant to replace Word but assist with the transition to the new world. If you never go online or share the words (really, never?) then Google Docs (and the like) is probably not for you.

    @Joining Dots - great article, thanks.

    @francois - interesting and certainly seems dumb, "public" should mean "public". Of course anything I publish is probably not linked to by anyone as I use it for known people that just need to read the words AND I don't care if anyone else finds it - therefore probably won't appear very high in any results ;-) But it should appear somewhere!?!

  8. Mike, I agree that it will be the young ones (and I like how you characterize that) who will set this thing off to the races. I have a six year old who can't imagine something that isn't shared the world over. And in the National Writing Project Site I co-direct, there's no better way to do our work than with Docs. Beyond that, it has become the only way for us to work in my school.

    I like the way that offline works as well because today, at a Starbucks where I was unwilling to pay for wireless access (who charges for this anymore?), I was able to work fairly well. It reduces Docs to a mere word processor, but it facilitates those times when wireless or other access isn't available (think airplanes).

  9. The real reason why Google blocks the search engines from indexing published documents is that Google doesn't have a way to separate private documents from public documents. Here's an example:

    Public document:

    Private document that can be shared in a mailing list:

    If you were to place an invitation link to a private document in a forum, any search engine would be able to index the document.

    Google Docs needs a separate URL scheme for published documents.

  10. @bgfay - true, offline is required but definitely in the way Gears and others (FF3?) are providing. Once it's connected then it must catch up and set those words free ;-)

    @Ionut - aha, thanks for explaining that to us. I agree, they need to change the URL scheme for published documents.

    Oh, and @francois, I can publish my Google Docs as a Blogger posting - is that what you mean? I just tick and away it goes ... well, would if I used it but I don't. Maybe I should!?!?

  11. @ Ionut Alex Chitu

    Maybe something like that would be nice:

    I doubt it's a 10 years "going to the moon" mission to change a URL scheme. What's bugging me is that goole doesn't seem to consider a change and doesn't warn users that "public" doesn't really means "public" as usual.

    @ Mike Riversdale

    I'm not sure I understand what you mean.
    I think Blogger or GooglePages are not the best tools for articles or tutorials of a few pages length or more. With Google docs it's like a real document (full width page without layout surprises) and it's much easier to add/update it or to work with others to improve it.

    Because of this I think lots of people are going to use Google docs to write essays, articles, tutorial, even books.

    Unfortunately all those *public* works/knowledge will be hidden from search engines.

    For example I just stumbled today on this tutorial:
    Through the too short blog post of its author:
    I wonder if the author knows his detailed content/examples are lost for search engines.

    I'm just saying that public non-searchable-(and you don't know they're not searchable)-docs is not the best way to *share knowledge*.
    It's unfortunately going to hide a part of it which wasn't intended for that by its author. Sad I say :(

  12. Well I've just started using Google docs after searching for a good online note-taking app that would complement the awesome todo list I have to say that Google Docs is just the ticket for storing things like project plans and important notes that previously bogged down my to-do list.

    Of course, this is just the sort of closed use that traditional "Documents" are all about. Even so, after creating just half a dozen "doclets", I've already found myself "publishing" 2 of them since I thought the content might be of interest to a general audience.

    I was a bit disappointed to discover, then, that I haven't really "published" them at all, since no-one would ever know that they're there. As I see it, there are two workarounds:
    1) Post the url for the document on my blog

    2) Use the Google docs function that allows a doc to be posted to my blog in it's entirety.

    There are pro's and con's to both methods: (1) maintains a live link so if I change the document the reader will see the change. BUT the content may not become searchable. (2) Will get picked up by search engines, but will have just have a static view of the document when I posted it.

    The solution? I think that google docs really does need a publish++ option, which, like blogger, will push the content straight in the face of search engines.

  13. @Paul:
    One option is to post documents to a blog. Go to Settings and enter the details of a blog and you'll have the option to publish documents to that blog.

  14. @Ionut

    Yes, that's my option (2), but I don't think it then keeps the document and blog in sync. That's the point I'm trying to make. But it's better than nothing, for sure.

    thanks for the link.

  15. Hi Paul

    I'm publishing presentations from GoogleDocs onto my blog and they do stay in sync. You embed an iframe. If the presentation is changed, those changes show wherever it has been embedded (as long as you keep it published).

    Am using GoogleDocs 'cos it does a lot better job of converting PPTs than Slideshare or Zoho

  16. @Joining Dots

    That solves one problem (keeping doc and blog in sync) but creates another: search engines don't normally pick up the content of iframes - or am I mistaken? If not then we're kind of back to square one. Frustrating.

  17. Hmmm, see what you mean. Not sure if the act of publishing within GoogleDocs means they are indexed and discoverable by search. But the rank is always going to be pants because they will have no link love.

    when I embed a presentation, I also include a URL link, but it is to a PDF version that people can download and use. That PDF version could be indexed but I doubt it would matter. The blog post will always have better relevance.

    Perhaps you should focus on the blog post being what gets indexed and searched for. When people find it, they can view the doc embedded and leave a comment on the blog post or click on the URL you provide to get a copy or contribute to it. The blog post will also have a better URL for others to link to from their sites, boosting its discoverability

  18. Pages published using Google Docs are not indexed by search engines because Google prevents that in the robots.txt file. Until Google removes this restriction, you won't be able to find any documents, spreadsheet or presentation in a search engine.

    If you publish the document to a blog, that page should appear in the search results.

  19. I've been using Google docs for sometime now. its the safest place to keep docs

  20. I love doc's and I just recently discovered how I can use images from external url's in my doc's. I haven't been able to find any stories, articles or API's about this on the net. The only thing I could find was that you CANNOT do this.

    Either I found out something by mistake, or I've stumbled across something very valuable and cool :o)

  21. @ Ionut Alex Chitu - this is not correct. The robots.txt file does nothing by itself, just tells a crawler not to go there. If this was true your docs would show up in Bing

  22. Apparently, this will change soon and public documents will become crawlable.