My problems with Google applications: holes in these journalism tools

AP file photo from 05 June 2005
Getty Images file photo from 05 June 2005

Updated 6/27/10 @ 8:50 p.m.: Added additional Gmail improvement suggestions

Yeah, we’re all on Google’s bird. It may be a phenomenon, financially and socially, but I still have my complaints. I’m sure you do too (even if you just blame them for killing newspapers, like the French do.)

As Google applications have grown in popularity during the past few years, journalists have taken to see Google aps as a way to better unite newsrooms.

The advantages are clear, but having only used Google aps for a couple years, and a couple for half that, but I have already found a number of faults with these free Web-based services, particularly for journalists.

With e-mail forwarding, ditch janky, hard to access company e-mail addresses in stead for larger capacity, better navigable GMail. Rather than complicated, if not arcane word processing software, let reporters work or editors simultaneously review on a single story, from different cubicles, bureaus or even countries with Google Documents.

Track crime or story focuses or trends with Google Maps. Schedule meetings and speakers, book the conference room and staff events on a shared Google Calendar. Let beat writers and editors share news from around the world and every news source, consuming content more efficiently than ever imagined with Google Reader.

Perhaps the only similarity most of these diverse applications have, other than being Google proprieties, is that they don’t self-monetize. Something tells me Google will do alright. They’ll do even better if they take the below advice on how to improve these products:

Gmail: Google’s e-mail client has to be their best project. Its size, searchability, tagging and starring brought down the free e-mail house. Still, because it leaped ahead in so many ways, it hasn’t closed all the doors for what it’s meant to offer, so I find it sometimes inconsistent.

  • My biggest complaint with Gmail comes with contacts. I love Gmail features for collecting sources. I can easily write their position, employer, contact information, and even add a photo from online to help keep a face with that name. I also often list information about that person to help me remember him: where did I meet him, why might I want to speak to him in the future, yet I can’t search by this “More Information.” This is no good for the world’s most powerful search engine. For a reporter or anyone else with a lot of contacts, I want to be able to search by any information I might remember, even if I can’t think of a name or e-mail address.
  • On more than one occasion, one of those great features – checking whether you want to navigate away from an e-mail you haven’t saved or sent – hasn’t come through. I’ve clicked away accidentally – more on Macs – and lost an e-mail on which I was working.
  • I would also like to see separate options of saving/deleting an e-mail and/or its attachment. That is, I often get e-mails I want to keep in my inbox, but their attachments – documents, photographs, etc. – just take up space. Give me the option of deleting the attachment, but keeping the e-mail.
  • Update 1/8/09: One of Gmail great options is its e-mail forwarding and address masking, so I can manage multiple e-mail addresses from my primary Gmail account. Accepting multiple roles, I’d like to see related multiple signatures, one for business, personal or different roles. (Thanks Jessica!)
  • Update 6/27/10: Followup needed alarm clock — When I send an important e-mail — rather than using labels — I’d love to be able to be able to request a reminder for followup to, say, remind me that I reached out to someone and if she didn’t respond, I ought to follow up.
  • Time release e-mails — I want to be able prepare an e-mail today and have it sent at a certain time on Wednesday, to coordinate with a post publication or another time reason.
  • Drag and drop functionality — Moving e-mails, placing contacts in folders and adding to labels could all be made way easier and sexier with this movement.

Gchat: Incorporating an instant messaging unit within Gmail is totally cool. But complaints linger.

  • I appreciate the option of merging my AIM account onto Gchat, but people who use other popular IM services, like Hotmail might feel left out
  • I’d like to be able to see a full list of buddies – AIM and Gchat, offline and online alike – as I can in AIM. The Gchat dock as a whole needs updating and developing.
  • Developing video chatting was another exciting development, though someone has to explain to me the point, then, of Google Talk.
  • Additionally, I’d like to see better, easier HTML options in the text window – links like this – and a more streamline shot at writing in bold and italics.
  • I’ve also heard complaints on that frustrating noise – which is only ever off or the sound is made when the window is minimized. Give us an option for reminding folks of a incoming message while the window is up, but perhaps behind another.

Google Documents: I love the concept of Google Docs most of all. The idea of having my most-important texts – resume, standard cover letter, stories on which I am working, etc. – affords me the opportunity to access or work on them wherever I have Internet access.  However, Docs may also be the most behind. There are reasons in the periphery, like the following:

  • When I forward a Google doc – which I do often, when sending stories to editors – I can’t find that e-mail in a Gmail search.
  • Like Gchat, the notes with forwarded Google docs can’t have links.
  • I can’t save a draft of an e-mail with a forwarded Google doc to be sent later.
  • When forwarding documents I have to deselect anything that I’ve previously selected, rather than be automatically deselected.
  • Also, in a broader way, the document-editor interface needs to become friendlier. The options and user-friendliness is behind Microsoft Word (criticisms aside), and even Open Source document editors.

Google Maps: This application has gotten the most attention and quickly been the mechanism newspapers and other media have incorporated the most into their product. I have some thoughts on improvement.

  • Though it presents a level of difficulty, Google Maps doesn’t click to an actual address, but rather focuses on a middle of the street, even for cities, where addresses are fairly standard and simple.
  • When searching an address, why not incorporate a news or Web search of that address alongside. While that will surely freak people out, it could help reporters quickly see if there is any other alarming associations with an address.
  • I would like to be able to get distance estimates with dragable directions. How far is Point A to Point B, particularly by this particular route. That could surely help reporters, but also, I would think, be used by runners or bicyclists to find routes and friends trying to end debates (No, Wawa is way more than a mile away, dude). Update from comments 11:25 p.m. EST: One can do that here, but what say Google Maps add the feature? (Thanks Colin!)

Google Calendar: Newsrooms could assign staff-wide meetings, book a conference or meeting room or events with this ap, but I want to see improvements in these areas:

  • Searchability. This tool could also help reporters develop a timeline for a story or column. But, I’ve found inconsistency in the search field. I have found “Chris’s” not come up when I search “Chris,” or something similar. Like with Gmail contacts, I expect the most comprehensive searches from Google. The same should come from its online applications.
  • Organization: I’d like to see calendar categories, so I can organize my events by Work or Fun, etc. This could also be called into search. Yahoo’s advanced e-mail client calls this “Event Type.”

Google Reader: With Google Documents, Reader has the best real-world application for newsrooms. I can see beat reporters in the future subscribing to any related blog or RSS feed, then sharing the most interesting stories with their section or entire papers, chancing at someone seeing broader applicability. As an energy-industry blogger with BNET Industries, that is what I am doing, subscribing to dozens of feeds and sharing them with other journalists. We’re talking speed and efficiently of consuming the Internet. It works so well there are classic Google Reader over-sharers. Still I see room for improvement.

  • I remember reading that Google was rolling out the option to share an item with just one individual. If that option came, I never found it. If it’s there, this needs to be made easier. If it isn’t, then we need it.
  • Can I create and share with Google Reader groups? Let’s say I am a city reporter for a big urban daily. I could create groups of editors, fellow reporters, the city desk, the entire newspaper, management, competing reporters, fellow beat reporters elsewhere, even just friends and more. Then I can more easily dictate to whom I share what I want to share.
  • While starring items is all well and good, let me star or tag items into a folder. Reader can be a great tool for storing story ideas, but they get buried quickly. I’d like to be able to save stories in my feed in folders like “pitches,” or “trend stories” or “crime,” etc.
  • I would like to see more ability to change the default size of my left column, listing feeds, and central portion on which I read my feeds.
  • I can add tags to what I share. Can I make individual RSS feeds of them? I should be able to do so.
  • Update 1/07/09: Why not fix the problem many noticed last summer, asks Reader Justin Sanak, in which Twitter feeds in reader weren’t properly updating?

Google Picasa Web: I wrote on Picasa and compared it with other online photo sites last week.

Google Blogger: This tool I am only now getting comfortable using, as opposed to year or more I have with the others, so I feel unprepared to accurately and intelligently offer my criticism. I hope to update this post in the future. Do you have thoughts now? Comment below.

Google Trends:

Google AdSense:

Feedburner:

Google Alerts:

Google News:

Google Transit:

Google Analytics: This tool I am only now getting comfortable using, as opposed to year or more I have with the others, so I feel unprepared to accurately and intelligently offer my criticism. I hope to update this post in the future. Do you have thoughts now? Comment below.

Am I being unfair? Have I missed other Google aps worth my attention? What complaints do you have with Google aps that I didn’t include here?

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Photo courtesy of Getty Images.