It shouldn’t come as a surprise to most people reading this blog that Google provides a number of services other than their traditional business area of web search. Many of the tools can be used as part of an online community environment, indeed it’s possibly to build an entire platform – albeit one spread amongst disparate, if partially integrated, services – using these tools, all for free (or at least very cheap). In this post I will cover some of these and discuss how they can be used to communicate and collaborate online.
Reader is Google’s RSS aggregator. These are really useful services which enable you to monitor your favourite websites without having to visit each one individually. This video shows how uber-blogger Robert Scoble uses Reader to get through an astonishing number of site feeds.
Reader is the best service of its type. Good community use of it includes the ability to share items you find particularly interesting. This produces a web page of content you have picked out which others can use, and there is an RSS feed for this too. Interesting blog posts or other website content can therefore be easily shared with others. Further social networking functionality is being built into it all the time, so it could become a great place to track what’s hot on the web.
Google Groups is a system of creating communities which communicate through email or a web based interface. It’s effectively a souped up mailing list arrangement, but works pretty well. The web section allows documents to be uploaded and shared, and web pages to be created for further pooling of information.
To be honest, services like Groups are somewhat unsophisticated in today’s world of Facebook, Bebo et al. But they are quick, free and easy to set up and could provide the basis for a community, certainly at the early stages. The ability to contribute just through email is pretty useful too. Using Groups as a mailing list server for barcampukgovweb worked brilliantly.
Rivals: Yahoo! Groups
Google Docs and Spreadsheets
Docs and Spreadsheets is Google’s answer to ‘Office 2.0’ – the use of office suites of applications within the browser. In this case it’s a word processor, presentations and a spreadsheet app. The benefits of this type of approach are as follows:
- Zero cost of software
- No upgrade worries
- Access and edit your documents from any computer with a decent internet connection
- Share and collaborate on documents from anywhere in the world without having multiple emailed versions flying around
In terms of online collaboration, these tools are astonishingly good. There are some risk considerations: you need to be online to use them, your data is stored on a third party server and the functionality isn’t up to the standard of desktop applications. But overall, the good stuff outweighs the bad considerably.
Blogger is Google’s blogging service. It’s incredibly popular, largely because it was first out of the blocks. Personally, I hate it, but it’s pretty easy to use for beginners, allows total control of how your blog appears, lets you have adverts to make some money and there is a certain level of integration with other Google services.
However, it’s almost impossible to get the address you want for your blog as so many people are already using it, as a network it’s full of spam blogs, and is nowehere near as feature rich as the likes of my personal favourite in the field, WordPress.com.
Blogs should be an integral part of any online community platform though – they make publishing content so easy.
Google’s customised search service (CSE) is extremely powerful, easy to set up and stuffed full of benefits for service providers and users alike. This technology effectively provides an alternative to products which cost a serious amount of money.
CSE answers the problem of searching the web and getting loads of irrelevant or spam-filled results. Here’s how it works: you provide Google with a whitelist of sites which you know to be relevant to want people want to search and when people use your customised search, they only get results from those pages, thus increasingly significantly the likelihood that they will be relevant. You can also label sites, which provides clickable filters for the user to further drill down into the results.
Google provides you with a homepage to direct users to, or you can embed the engine within another website, or even set up a bespoke homepage. Examples of uses of this technology include my efforts LGSearch, KMSearch and BookZilla. I have produced a slideshow demonstrating just how easy this is to do on Slideshare.
Lots of people use Google Maps to find their way from A to B, and it works very well in this regard. It’s also very simple to insert a map into another web page, to show the location of your offices, for example. But the Maps API (application programming interface) means it can be much more powerful than that.
For example, you can create a map and display it on your site with a wide variety of information on it. Such mashups are an incredibly powerful element of the technology base of Web 2.0 and Google Maps is a great example of a company being open with its information for the benefit of the community. The potential application of this technology has limitless benefits for online communities and collaborative partnerships.
Gmail (or Googlemail as it’s known in some parts of the world) is a web based email service that is probably the best one available at the moment. Here’s a list of some of the cool features:
- Threaded conversations – replies are all kept together in context
- Over 6 gigabytes of storage space – no need to delete anything
- Excellent spam filtering – publicise your email address with confidence
- Handle other email accounts through GMail – you can even send mail from a different address
- Add labels to emails rather than putting them in folders – so you can have an email with more than one label
- Use Google Talk instant messaging without having to leave the Gmail screen
- Find your emails with the powerful search tool
- The adverts are text only and unobtrusive
Gmail is great to use as an email system for online communities, whether as a contact address for the community as a whole or for use by individual members. There are a number of innovative ways it can be used as a productivity tool as well – soon making it an indispensable service.
Google’s calendar offering is another one which, like Gmail, blew the opposition apart. It’s a great little service, with sharing information with others at the heart of much of what is cool about it.
You can share your appointments with other people, create group calendars which aggregate lots of people’s appointments into one, and make calendars public and readable by anybody.
This flexibility makes Calendar a great time management tool for any collaborative enterprise.
iGoogle is the name given to what was the personalised home page. It’s basically a Google search page with lots of different content on it, which you can choose. It could be made up of RSS feeds, mini versions of Gmail or Calendar, an interactive file list of your Docs and Spreadsheets and a whole gamut of other widgets and services.
iGoogle actually falls behind some of the competition in this area, in that it’s difficult to share a personalised page with others, so its use as a community tool is limited. However, with a little organisation, it should be possible to work out a common set up between members of a community to help foster information sharing and reuse.
The real value of iGoogle, though, is its role within the Google Apps for your Domain platform.
Google Apps for your Domain
Google Apps, as the service is known for short, is a customisable version of the following Google services:
• Docs and Spreadsheets
• Google Talk
• Web Page Creator
Essentially, you register a new domain, or configure an existing one, with Google and they provide these services for free up to 200 users. You can change colour schemes and add logos to give it all a corporate feel. Effectively, this is a enterprise standard groupware solution. For free.
iGoogle becomes more useful because you can control what the left hand column contains, so that a certain element of the page is similar for everyone, ensuring that specific information is distributed to everyone on the network.
The only lame part of the package is Web Page Creator, which is a service I haven’t mentioned before because it isn’t great and isn’t terribly important. Unless you are a DNS wizard, it’s tricky to get your URL displaying anything other than the pages you create in this very simplistic application. See the Change2 homepage for the sort of thing that’s possible (ie not a lot).
There are a couple of services that really ought to be integrated too, like Blogger and Reader for example. But Google Apps is still an amazing deal.
Cost: Price of a domain
Rivals: None that I can think of
In terms of the Google spread of services, not a lot. Using the free stuff Google offers, you could clearly create a useful network, with a little work and using the Google Apps service as a hub to control the rest obviously has its benefits.
But there are a couple of things missing. One is a decent wiki service. Google has Notebook, a simple note taking and sharing tool, but it is nowhere near the power of, say, Wikispaces. This should be sorted out soon, however, as Google bought JotSpot not so long ago, which is an established and fully featured wiki platform. I would hope to see this made part of the Google Apps suite pretty quickly, too.
The other is a decent photo sharing service to rival Yahoo!’s Flickr. Google has Picasa Web Albums, which ties in with their free desktop photo manager (which is actually quite good) but there isn’t anywhere near the same power, flexibility or community elements that Flickr has.
Google provide a huge array of free tools to help you communicate and collaborate with others online. For many community groups and collaborative endeavours, this will be sufficient. The real gem is the Google Apps package, which for the price of a domain name will enable you to tie together a number of the services and provide a more tightly integrated experience for users.
But Blogger for me is too weak a blogging tool to be of much use to anyone but a real beginner, and I would recommend using WordPress.com instead as a free option. Also, until JotSpot is re-released, any wiki pages will have to be hosted on a non-Google site like Wikispaces. These are two areas that will need to be addressed before Google can be considered a one-stop community shop.
One of the key challenges to establishing a community is attracting engagement – not just getting the numbers in of people signing up, but getting them to actively take part. One step to achieve this is through gradual culture change, helped by active and properly targeted facilitation. Another is to create a reason for people to come to the site on a regular basis, in fact to make them come.
What do the following have in common?
- Lotus 1–2–3 and the PC
- Email and the internet
- Google search and the world wide web
Easy, of course, the former in each bullet being the ‘killer app’ of the latter item. Lotus was such a good spreadsheet that people bought PCs just to run it. Email was a key reason for the growth of home web connections through the ‘90s. Google has made the web accessible for the masses.
So, to provide that reason for people to visit your community, you need to find it a killer app – something that your site does better than anyone else’s. Preferably, to extol the virtues of social media and online knowledge sharing (generally the raison d’être of online communities), this killer app should be open and possible to manage through the community.
So, what sort of things could we have as our killer app? I can think of two, both of which I have developed myself for the local government sector but which I didn’t tie to a wider community. I’m kicking myself now that I didn’t.
Firstly, customised search. Every sector under the sun is screaming out for one of these. Google and the other search engines are great at finding specific terms, but they have little understanding of context. LGSearch has had a tremendous impact in local government circles, especially when one considers the lack of promotion it received (a couple of blogs posts, the odd forum entry).
One of the first things you should do when building a community is to create the search engine. Just use Google Coop to start with, it’s easy but powerful (and free) and you can always sort out something else in time if it isn’t up to the job. Make sure the search is both embedded in your community’s home page and available at (say) a sub-domain so it can exist in its own right. Include plenty of cross referenced content between the search page and the community, to make it easy to explore.
Make the list of sites searched open to suggestion (possibly through a wiki) from community members – in other words, give people a reason to engage.
The second killer app is the wiki glossary. Every sector has its own jargon, acronyms, abbreviations, terminology and no one understands it all. This was the reason for the creation of localgovglossary between myself and Steve Dale, inspired by David Wilcox’s social media wiki glossary. These are great, because they are easy to understand, perfect for the wiki medium and are instantly useful.
Here’s an example of why wiki glossaries just work in terms of online knowledge sharing. One of the more regular contributors to localgovglossary is a chap called Duncan Ford, and the material he is posting are culled from notes he has been making for himself for years, whether on paper or in word documents. He’s seen several attempts to create an online glossary in the past, but the wiki format is the first to make it a viable enterprise.
Make the glossary wiki a publicly accessible key part of your community site. Being able to add to the wiki is a good reason for people to sign up, and once they’re, and used to the idea of knowledge sharing online, they will be more likely to engage in other areas of the site.
So, create a reason why people can’t not join your community. They don’t have to be either of the tools I mention above, but they are a couple of things that can be got off the ground very quickly and have instant rewards.
…that’s occurred to me since being at Online Information last week.
People still seem to be under the impression that having a forum on a website, whether internal or external, means you have a community. You don’t. A community needs so much more than just that.
But it seems for a lot of people, the forum is the be-all and end-all of a conversational approach to the web. For those of us trying to be a little more ambitious, there is plenty of opportunity out there, I think.