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Google Docs secrets: 20 power tips

If you haven’t looked at Google Docs recently, now’s a good time to check it out. The office suite, which works entirely within a browser window, has slowly but steadily continued to evolve into a highly usable set of free tools.

The lineup has come a long way since Google bought the collaborative Writely word processor in 2006. Unlike desktop software releases such as Microsoft Office, which get big updates every few years, Google Docs is a continually changing work in progress. Google introduces new features on a rolling basis, and add-ons continue to emerge both from the Google Labs and, for those who use Google Apps for Business, from the Google Apps Marketplace.

We’ve taken an extended look under the hood of Google Docs and uncovered 20 tips for getting more done by exploring some of the less obvious features in its word processor, spreadsheet, and presentation software—with a few hints for Gmail, too. Our coverage ranges from editing photos in place in a text document to working with multiple currencies in a spreadsheet. We’ll also share cool ways to use the revamped homepage document organizer and to maximize your editing space.

1. Search Google Docs and Gmail together

Wouldn’t it be great to be able to search both Gmail and your list of Google documents at the same time? Luckily, the Gmail Labs have worked out a way to do this. To get to the Labs from Gmail, click Settings in the top right portion of the screen, and then click the Labs link.

Scroll down until you get to the Apps Search entry; there, click Enable, and then click the Save Changes button at the top or bottom of the list. Henceforth, any search that you request within Gmail will also search your documents, and the doc results will appear beneath the Gmail results.

2. Search Google Docs more effectively

You can refine your searches on the home page by using operators, such as “type:spreadsheet”, which will return only matches from spreadsheets in the search results. See more examples of operators.

3. Quickly back up all your documents offline

If you’d like to save all of the documents that live on Google’s servers to your hard drive, start by hovering the mouse over any file in the Google Docs homepage file listing. Next, choose Actions and select Download in the menu that appears.

In the resulting dialog box, click the All Items tab. You’ll be see many items of each file type that you can download; if you’re happy, click the Download button. The files will be downloaded together in a .zip file.

4. Max out your editing space

To lose the toolbar and use your entire browser window for editing, select View and then Hide Controls. To bring the toolbar back, press Esc.

In Google Chrome, you can combine this setting with the full-screen mode to dedicate the entire screen to editing. Pushing your mouse cursor to the top of the screen will make the menu visible once more, and clicking the Restore button will return the window to normal.

5. Share docs with non-Google Docs users

Google Docs is all about collaboration, and you can even permit people who don’t have a Google account to view and edit your documents.

To share a file, click the padlock icon alongside the document title at the top left of the window. In the dialog box that appears, select Change alongside the Private entry in the list. In the new dialog box, select either Public on the Web or Anyone with the Link. If you want viewers to be able to edit the document as well as just to see it, put a check next to Allow Anyone to Edit. Then click the Save button, and copy and paste the link into one or more e-mail messages.

6. Star multiple documents at once

Adding a star to a document is a useful way to make it stand out from other entries in a homepage list.

On the Docs homepage, you can add stars to multiple files by selecting them in the usual way: Hold down command or shift as you selecting the file name. Then drag the file name onto the top of the Starred entry in the filter list at the top left of the interface.

7. View a video’s technical details

You can store files, such as videos, in Google Docs. Just click the Upload button, and select your video file.

Right-click the thumbnail preview of any video file on the home page and select Show Video Info to see technical details about the file, such as its resolution.

8. Explore the templates

Many people don’t realize that Google’s word processor and spreadsheet tools offer hundreds of document templates, including some highly sophisticated ones for tax work and other specialized purposes.

To view the document templates, select Create New and then From Template on the Docs homepage.

9. Automatically correct common typos

If you frequently mistype or misspell words, you can make Google Docs automatically correct them as you type within the word processor.

Select Tools and then Preferences. In the dialog box that appears, enter the commonly mistyped text in the top-most empty Replace field, and enter the correct spelling in the neighboring With field.

For example, many people mistype the as teh, so you might want to enter teh in the Replace field and the in the With field.

10. Click and drag images into docs

To insert a picture into a word processing document, click and drag the image from a folder on your hard drive or on your desktop into the browser window.

11. Fix pictures in position

You can fix images into position within documents, forcing text to flow around them.

By default, the Google Docs word processor inserts pictures in such a way that they move with the text; this arrangement is known as Inline positioning. To fix the picture to the page so that it remains stationary while text flows around it (the only way to move the picture is to click and drag it) first select the image and then, at the bottom, click Fixed.

12. Insert links in a snap

The most common way to insert a hyperlink into a text document is to choose Insert and then Link, or to press command-K. But if you’re using Google Chrome, another option is to click and drag a shortcut from the bookmarks toolbar or even from the bookmarks menu to the To What URL field, where it will instantly become a hyperlink.

You can even drag links straight from the bookmarks toolbar and the bookmarks menu onto the document to create hyperlinked text.

13. Use Bookmarks to navigate long documents

Within word processing documents, you can define bookmarks and then create links elsewhere that jump straight to that bookmark. This can be useful when you’re creating table-of-contents pages, for example.

To insert a bookmark, choose Insert and then Bookmark. To create a link to a bookmark, highlight the word or phrase that you want people to click in order to jump to the bookmark, and then press command-K. Then select the Bookmark radio button in the resulting dialog box, and select the bookmark that you created earlier.

14. Use the word processor to create Web pages

If you find HTML or Website design software a little baffling, you can instead use Google’s word processor to create simple Web pages. To insert pictures, click and drag them onto the browser window, as mentioned above; insert links by highlighting the text or image file and pressing command-K.

Once you’ve created a page, click File, then Download As, and then HTML (Zipped) to download the data.The resulting folder will contain a single HTML file along with a folder of support files. Rename the HTML file as index.html, and upload that file and the folder of supporting files to your Web space.

15. Work with multiple currencies in a spreadsheet

To set the base currency format for a spreadsheet, click File and then Spreadsheet Settings. Alter the Locale setting to the relevant country (United States for the dollar, for example).

Regardless of the Locale setting you choose, you can mark cells or ranges of cells to be formatted in a different currency. To do so, highlight those cells and click the More Formats button (labeled ‘123’) on the toolbar. Then scroll down to the More Currencies pop-up menu and make your selection.

16. Use Rules to color code spreadsheets

You can automatically change the color of spreadsheet cells based on their content. To do so, highlight the cells tthat you want to apply color coding to, and select first Format and then Change Colors with Rules.

From the dropdown list in the dialog box, choose the criterion that you want the color coding to filter by—the text of the cell, say, or the date. Then enter the filtering criterion that you want to use into the text field alongside. For example, to color-code all cells containing the name “Melvin,” select Text Contains from the dropdown list, and enter melvin into the text field. (The field isn’t case-sensitive.)

17. Gather spreadsheet data using forms

Sometimes you need to gather data from co-workers, customers, or other individuals. Forms provide a quick way to satisfy this need, offering simple multiple-question interfaces that you can e-mail to people or include on Web pages.

To get started, open a new spreadsheet and click on the Form menu; then choose Create a Form. In the window that appears, type your first question into the Question Title field. You can provide explanatory text in the Help Text field if you wish (that text will appear above the question on the form). In the Question Type dropdown field, select the type of answer you’re looking for—multiple choice, plain text, or whatever the case may be. If you’re requesting numerical data, select Text.

To enter another question, hover your mouse over Sample Question 2 and click the pencil icon. Then repeat the steps described above. To add more questions, click the Add Item button at the top left of the window.

Once your questions are complete, e-mail the form to its intended recipients by clicking the Email This Form button. Alternatively, open the More Actions dropdown list and select Embed to obtain HTML code that you can insert into a Web page.

Any data that people enter on your form will appear at the top of the spreadsheet. You can manage or delete forms by using the Form menu within the spreadsheet.

18. See Google Docs previews in Gmail

For a live preview (within the Gmail window) of a Google Docs link that you’ve received via e-mail, activate the Google Docs Previews in Mail add-on in Google Labs. To access Labs, choose Settings and then Labs. Once you’ve found the Google Docs Previews in Mail add-on, choose Enable and then click the Save Settings button.

19. Create drawings within presentations

When creating a presentation, you needn’t switch to the separate drawing component to make a sketch. Instead, click Insert and then Drawing. These commands will open the drawing interface in a floating window.

When you’re finished, click Save and then Close to insert the drawing into the presentation, where you can reposition and resize it.

20. Save drawings in scalable form

If you create a drawing in Google Docs and want to download it for offline use, be sure to select the SVG option from the File, Download As menu. Doing so will create a scalable file—a drawing that you can resize without causing its quality to deteriorate, unlike JPEG and PNG files.

Google Docs: Always improving

Google Docs continues to improve practically every month as new features arise. A good way of keeping up with the additions is to monitor the Google Docs Blog, which the team behind Docs writes.

In addition, don’t be afraid to click around within Google Docs to find out how various features work; and consider taking time to explore the Google Docs forum, where users write up interesting things that they’ve discovered.

If we’ve missed major tips, please add them to the comments section below.

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