How Google Docs Works

Advanced Tricks in Google Docs

Multiple people can view and edit a Google Docs file simultaneously. More importantly, they don't have to worry about creating duplicate copies of the same file. With Google Docs, everyone working on a project makes changes to the same master document. As users make edits, Google Docs tracks all the changes and tags each edit with the responsible Google account holder's name. That way, the owner of the document can scan changes and see who is responsible for each edit.

Google designed Google Docs to autosave almost constantly, preserving each edit shortly after a user makes it. Other users see the updated changes instantly. While working with documents or presentations, users can see who else is in the file. And with spreadsheets, users can click on a tab labeled "discuss" to chat in real time about the project.


In April 2008, Google announced that users could work on Google Docs document files (but not presentations or spreadsheets) offline using Google's editing software. Previously, users would have to download a file from Google Docs and work on it with some other kind of productivity software if they needed to work offline. Then they'd have to upload the document back to Google Docs once they reconnected to the Internet. This meant that users would create multiple versions of the same file.

Google's solution to this problem is Google Gears, a plug-in application that makes other Web applications more robust. Gears allows users to access the Google editor offline. Once you reconnect to the Internet, Google Docs automatically syncs the offline copy of your document with the master copy stored in the Google account. If another user has made edits to one of the sections you've changed, your changes won't be implemented. Instead, Google alerts you to the issue and gives you the opportunity to compare your changes against the other user's edits. If you still want your changes to go into the file, you can copy and paste them into the document.

Google also has some advanced tricks for spreadsheet editors. For example, the Google Finance feature can retrieve information about a publicly-traded company. It follows an "object/attribute" pattern. Users enter a company's stock ticker symbol (the object) and request a specific piece of information about that company (the attribute). For example, a user could enter the formula to look up Google's most recent stock price. The information updates as market conditions change, though the data can lag up to 20 minutes behind actual conditions.

GoogleLookup is another spreadsheet feature that follows the object/attribute model. Let's say you're building a table that compares different U.S. cities. You might want to look up the population for each city and enter it in a specific column. With the GoogleLookup feature, you'd enter a formula, signify the city you are interested in and ask for the attribute "population." The Google search engine looks for that information and retrieves it. If there are multiple answers for a particular attribute, Google presents all of them to you so that you can determine which one is right for your needs.

While many of the features of Google Docs sound useful, some people are reluctant to adopt the cloud computing approach. Why are they cautious about using Google Docs? Find out in the next section.