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!