Navigating Google

By Gail Z. Martin

Google is the ultimate over-achiever, striving to be everything to everybody. Most of the time, they do a good job. The Google line of products isn't all equally spectacular, but even the so-so offerings have the benefit of being tied in to the Google Empire.

Let's start with Google, the search engine. Yes, there's Bing and Yahoo, but Google is the 800-pound gorilla of online search. Sure, specialized programs like BuzzSumo or Boardreader search certain parts of the web very well, but Google serves up a wealth of accurate results quickly. The downside, of course, is that your searches are being tracked and data mined, which is how eerily accurate customized ads magically appear at the top of your page and in the right hand bar. You can delete your browsing history, but that just affects your screen, not what Google knows about you.

Google+ is the Shrodinger's Cat of the internet, simultaneously alive and dead depending on how you look at it. As of the writing of this book, Google+ was still online and predicted to stay that way. Yet it's never really lived up to expectations that it would be the next Facebook, either for personal or business use. It's got some nice features, not the least of which (like all Google products) is that it can be accessed by a single sign-in on your Google home page. The user interface is clean and eye-catching, and plays up photos and videos well.

It's just… lonely out there. Google+ reminds me of being at a mall on a boring Wednesday afternoon or in an airport terminal in the middle of the night. The structure is great, it has a lot to offer, but there's nobody around. So perhaps one backhanded benefit to being on Google+ is the lack of clutter and noise. If you can attract your tribe to follow you, or attract current users, you'll have a better signal to noise ratio than on more populated sites. Just don't expect to find a user base that is rapidly expanding.

I suspect that Google will either eventually repurpose Google+ or shut it down, so while it's a nice place to post content you're creating for distribution, I'm not sure it's worth making a time investment to actively grow your audience.

Google Hangouts, the online way to record video via Google, is in a state of transition as I'm writing this. Hangouts On Air, which enabled live video broadcasts, has been shut down. That eliminates some great features, which the remaining Hangouts does not offer. Google Hangouts still makes it possible to do a video chat with up to nine users, but the automatic recording and broadcast features died with Hangouts On Air. If you want to record your video calls, you're better with Skype or similar products. Google is in the process of creating app-based products, so it will be interesting to see whether Hangouts gets a business makeover and eventually becomes a subscription app.

Google Drive is a cloud storage and sharing program that makes it very easy for you to store all kinds of digital materials on a virtual “drive" I would never recommend storing confidential or sensitive materials on Google Drive for security reasons, but for sharing documents, slide presentations, and files, it works very well and being part of the Google product suite, it's ubiquitous. You control the sharing options and whether or not other people can edit or view. Google Drive is great for storing materials where they are easily accessible for work groups or teams. Of course, there are many other cloud storage and sharing programs that work well.

Likewise, Google Docs works for basic document sharing and limited content management, especially if your document is too large to email as an attachment. It's a robust document creation program that is free and available to anyone with an internet connection. Wisely, Google made Google Docs compatible with Microsoft Word. Google Docs have the advantage of being available in the cloud, so if you travel, you have access to your documents from wherever you are, even if you don't have your laptop with you. Templates and styling tools make it easy to put together nice looking pages.

While Google Docs are free, the more business-focused GSuite of products requires a monthly fee for an integrated set of useful applications Google Sheets provides similar functionality for spreadsheets, while Google Forms takes care of surveys and Google Slides create digital presentations. Google Sites make it easy to create quick-and-easy intranet-style team sites to enable sharing and collaboration.

Google Translate is great for a casual translation of a phrase, but as many language students have discovered to their discomfort, it is no substitute for a good dictionary or a native speaker. Nuance, connotation and idiom are often lost in translation, making for stories that are humorous unless they happen to you. You've been warned.

Gmail is here to stay. It's free and easy to set up, and ties into the Google suite of programs. Gmail is perfect for setting up alternative email addresses to direct certain types of emails out of your main work or personal account or to set up a special-purpose email address for a contest or landing page. You'll need at least one Gmail account to access the rest of the Google suite of products.

Google Calendar is a free calendar system that works well with Gmail and is accessible anywhere you can pull up Google. It integrates with Outlook and with scheduling systems like Calendly, and it's easy to set up and use. I wouldn't rely on anything provided by Google to be secure and private, but if you can live with that caveat, Calendars works well and provides a lot of features for a free program.

Google Maps are generally more accurate than your car's navigation system because they provide reliable, real-time updates on traffic conditions. You can get directions via a map, written instructions or turn-by-turn vocal guidance. Because Google updates its maps more often than automakers refresh their navigation software, you're less likely to find your icon floating around in empty space when you travel on a relatively new stretch of road. Google Earth provides satellite views for almost everywhere on the planet. It's amazing in its ability to give you a bird's eye view of anywhere in the world and a little frightening with the ability to show your backyard to anyone who wants to look it up. Likewise, Google Street Views take you on a world-wide tour as if you're walking down a sidewalk anywhere the site's industrious photographers have canvassed (which is surprisingly far and wide).

Google Books scans public domain and publisher-permitted books for your specific search terms.

Google provides products that are either free or very reasonably priced. Keep in mind that the cost of “free" software is privacy and the downside of easy sharing is security.

Excerpted from The Essential Social Media Marketing Handbook.


Gail Z. Martin owns DreamSpinner Communications. Contact her at