How Google Groups Works

Google Groups has several features that can help you keep in touch with friends, connect with people who have similar interests, and organize projects and presentations. See more pictures of popular web sites.

You've just settled in at your desk on your first day of grad school when your professor says those two dreaded words: group project. Everyone shifts uneasily in their seats as they size each other up, already envisioning the inevitable late-night library sessions, mountains of e-mails and countless computer documents. When you meet your group for the first time, you decide to try something a little different. Instead of scribbling down everyone's phone numbers and e-mail addresses on a sheet of paper, you use your laptop to jump on the school's WiFi and head to Google Groups. From there, you create a group specifically for the class and invite your group members to join. Over the course of the semester, you and your teammates post messages to one another, upload files for review and collaborate on a Web page, all through your Google Group.

The history of Google Groups started, in some ways, long before Google ever existed. In 1979, two Duke University graduate students invented a type of digital message board that came to be known as Usenet groups [source: USA Today]. These message boards, which were read with special newsreader software, gave computer users the ability to start public discussions with each other around the world. Usenet groups became extremely popular throughout the 1980s and 1990s, though that popularity began to wane as the Internet became more popular and accessible. Fortunately, the millions of messages posted throughout Usenet's popularity were preserved in an online archive, first by and later, after Google purchased the archives from Deja in 2001, in the form of Google Groups [source: Stellin].

Over the next several years, Google began to add functionality to Google Groups, starting with the ability for you to create individual groups. These groups differed from Usenet groups in a number of ways, most significantly by allowing you to set different access levels for a group. Next came the ability to create internal Web pages, post files and even create user profiles within the groups. Read on to learn about how you can use these Google Groups features to keep in touch with friends, connect with people who have similar interests, and organize projects and presentations.

Using Google Groups

Google Groups, like many of Google's applications, is designed with ease of use in mind. For instance, to search Google Groups for topics that interest you, you simply use a search box located on the Google Groups homepage. Results will be returned to you as they would be through any basic Internet search. Google Groups also has an advanced search capability, where you can search by date range, language, group or author. Searching by date range can prove particularly interesting, since discussions stretch back 25 years and cover everything from technology to politics. Once you've found a topic that interests you, you can subscribe to the group and receive updates about new posts via e-mail.

Creating your own group isn't much harder than searching through existing groups, though you'll need to make some decisions about who can post to the group moving forward. Google Groups designates three different access levels for its groups: public, announcements-only and restricted. As you might imagine, public groups have the fewest restrictions. Anyone can view discussions in a public group, though only members of the group can post messages, create pages and upload files.

Announcements-only groups differ from public groups because only group managers can post content. A group like this might be useful for non-profit groups or parent-teacher associations, where group managers want to keep members informed about the latest news but don't necessarily want members' feedback posted for all to see.

Unlike public and announcements-only groups where anyone can view content, in restricted group, only members can read posts. In fact, restricted groups' posts don't appear in search results at all, so members are, typically, personally invited by the group's manager.

Speaking of inviting members, it's one of the first things you'll do once you've created a group. Invitations are sent via e-mail, and while you don't need a Gmail account to join a group, you won't have access to some of Google Groups' features if you use another e-mail service. For instance, if you don't have a Gmail account, you won't be able to upload files or create Web pages, though you'll still be able to view and respond to posts through your own e-mail account. If you do happen to have a Gmail account, posting files and creating pages is fairly straightforward. After logging in to Gmail, you can click "more" at the top of your e-mail account homepage and select "groups" from the drop-down menu. Or, as a Gmail user, you can go directly to and access a list of the groups you belong to. From the Google Groups dashboard, you simply click on the group you are interested in and a list of the group's recent discussions will appear on the screen, along with a menu bar that lets you contribute to the group's content.

While Google Groups owes a lot to its Usenet roots, it has a number of useful new features that sets it apart from the competition. Read on to find out more about these unique features.

Benefits of Google Groups

Google Groups is hardly the only application of its kind. Yahoo! and Microsoft, for instance, both offer similar services, and both have additional features not available in Google Groups. So what sets Google Groups apart? Perhaps the most significant difference is its Usenet archive, which includes more than 700 million messages [source: BBC]. Not all of these discussions are in English, which brings up another nice feature: Using "advanced search," you can look for discussions in more than 40 different languages. Better yet, you can translate the discussions to English with one click, and while the translations are far from perfect, they give you a good idea of what's being said.

Another nice thing about Google Groups is how unobtrusive its ads are. In typical Google fashion, all ads are text-based and tucked away so that they don't impede functionality. The ads that are included, however, are what Google refers to as "relevant text ads," meaning that they relate to the content of the group. Google assures its users that no humans are involved with matching ads to group content, though you might feel a little like someone is peeking over your shoulder when highly personalized ads appear on the screen in front of you. But remember, ad revenue allows Google to offer its group service free of charge.

As for storage space, Google lets you use up to 100 megabytes (MB) of storage space for Web pages and files, though there is no limit for the overall size of a Google Group. Additionally, attachments to single messages are limited to a total of 10 MB, which can pose a problem when a group is working on large, media rich presentations. Other group services offer similar storage caps, though some are more generous than others are. For instance, Yahoo! Groups has a total of 200 MB available for group storage (100 MB for attachments and photos, and another 100 MB for files). Lastly, you should keep in mind that you won't be able to upload files to archived Usenet groups, which work differently from those created through Google Groups.

So what is Google Groups missing compared to its competitors? Yahoo! Groups offers the ability to create polls for group members, collaborate on a group calendar and post links of interest to the group. Windows Live Groups offers a calendar feature as well, in addition to a massive 5 gigabytes (GB) worth of storage on what it calls a "Sky Drive." Still, despite the differences, all three companies' group services work much the same way and can prove invaluable for helping members share information with one another.

Related HowStuffWorks Articles


  • BBC News. "Digital history saved." Dec. 14, 2001. (7/1/2009)
  • Lombardi, Candace. "Google Groups drops beta." CNET News. Jan. 1, 2007. (7/1/2009)
  • Mediratta, Bharat. "The Google Way: Give Engineers Room." The New York Times. Oct. 21, 2007. (7/1/2009)
  • Stellin, Susan. "New Economy; Google's revival of a Usenet archive opens up a wealth of possibilities but also raises some privacy issues." The New York Times. May 7, 2001. (7/1/2009)
  • Templeton, Brad. "I Remember USENET." Dec. 21, 2001. (7/1/2009)
  • USA Today. "Usenet creator Jim Ellis dies." June 29, 2001. (7/1/2009)