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3 Ways To Get More From Google Docs

Check out three creative tips for small and midsize business users who want to get added value from Google's productivity suite.

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Startups and companies on a shoestring budget need to squeeze everything they can from their resources. Often that means finding ways to use tech tools that go beyond what’s listed in the product description.

Take Google Docs. Whether you have the free version or Google Apps for Business, with a little creativity you can look past the core feature set and adapt the application to your particular needs. That comes in handy if you’re operating on a modest budget. It also adds versatility if you want to use both Google Docs and Microsoft Office.

"Every business should be leveraging Google Docs, even if it isn’t your primary document suite," said Nick Narodny, cofounder and SVP of business training at the online education startup Grovo.

[ Does sharing information on social media actually enhance privacy? At least one Google researcher thinks so. Read Google Study: Social Media Enhances Privacy. ]

In a combination of phone and email interviews, Narodny served up three ways for SMBs to take Google Docs beyond garden-variety word processing.

Scraping. Narodny defines scraping as "automatically extracting large amounts of information from a website." The practice has a number of potential uses. Some of those tread into ethical gray areas, but plenty are, as Narodny puts it, "less mercenary." A prime example is sales lead prospecting. Scraping can automate the process of scouring the Web for potential new customers and can collect that data in a single, easily accessible place.

"Traditionally you had to know how to code to scrape content effectively, but with the Scraper Chrome extension and Google Docs, you can pull and aggregate large amounts of data quickly," Narodny said.

The steps are simple. First, download and install the Scraper Extension for Chrome. Then highlight the data you want to grab from any Web page. Next, right-click the highlighted area and select "Scrape Similar." Finally, select "Export to Google Docs." (You’ll also need to grant the Scraper access to Google Docs the first time you do this.) You’re now able to view the data in Google Docs and organize or modify it according to your needs.

Expense Reporting. Finance and accounting managers will appreciate this one, particularly if you’re stuck managing a morass of Excel spreadsheets for expense reporting. Instead of dealing with a ton of Excel files locally--and the corresponding email overload that often comes with submitting and approving employee expense reports--you can move everything online and manage it from a single location.

The simple steps: Upload your existing Excel template to Google Docs. Click "Create", then "From template… ." Click the "Submit a template" link in the upper-right corner. Select the expense report you just uploaded, enter a description, add a category, and click submit. Now employees can create and submit all their expense reports online from the template. Better yet, you can make any future changes to the template once, without worrying about people using older versions stored on their hard drive.

Narodny offers this advice: To ensure that the initial template never gets edited by accident, make sure to turn off all sharing in the template document.

Virtual Whiteboarding. "Too often, ideas and information get lost in translation when communicating remotely, whether over the phone or via online chat," Narodny said. The Drawings app in Google Docs provides a quick and simple way for your mobile workforce to take the trusty conference room whiteboard on the road. The sharing function ensures it’s seen by the right people--and no one else.

Follow these four simple steps to bring the whiteboard online: Create a new Drawing. Click on the "Untitled Document" header to give it a new name. Share the drawing with meeting participants by clicking Share and adding their email addresses. Draw and collaborate in real time.

That’s it--no dry-erase marker necessary!

The Enterprise Connect conference program covers the full range of platforms, services, and applications that comprise modern communications and collaboration systems. It happens March 25-29 in Orlando, Fla. Find out more.

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