Review: Google Apps Hacks

Last week at the Web 2.0 Expo I decided to walk the exhibition floor. Niall Kennedy and I checked out the inflatable Google booth, we gave feedback to the WordPress folks, and we came to rest in the Yahoo booth, where it was nice to see Jeremy Zawodny and catch up a little bit.

After a few minutes of talking, I noticed the O’Reilly booth just a few yards away. I’m a sucker for O’Reilly books, so I moseyed over to check out the selection. Lo and behold, they had the new Google Apps Hacks book by Philipp Lenssen of Google Blogoscoped! I had pre-ordered the book on Amazon a while ago and it still hadn’t arrived at that point. I’d like to think that the O’Reilly folks carried the books straight from the printing presses right to the booth. If so, I was one of the first people in the U.S. to buy a copy last Thursday. 🙂

All of this is a roundabout way of saying that I’ve had a while to read the book. My verdict? It’s really good. Part of my job is to know obscure things about Google, yet several of the hacks in this book discussed tricks that I didn’t know. Google Docs lets you do find-and-replace and use regular expressions?! Yup, and hack 13 gives several handy expressions to use. Very few people know (hack 26) that Google Spreadsheets can magically take cell values such as “red,” “yellow” and “blue” and fill in more colors. Even fewer people know that this “MagicFill” feature is powered by Google Sets. The net effect is that you can start with two words like “seo” and “sem” and get this back:


Search engine optimizers will love hack 27, which tells how to import data from a web page into Google Spreadsheets automatically. The list of tricks goes on and on, from creating new scratch Gmail addresses in two different ways (hack 53) to configuring things so that a right-click with your mouse lets you access either the browser menu or the context menu from an application like Google Docs (hack 125).

What’s especially good about this book?
– A lot of these tips are very fresh, e.g. discussing how to get a Google Site, which just launched a couple months or so ago.
– Search engine optimizers and bloggers will enjoy chapter 12, which includes tips on SEO, using Google Analytics, and how to follow discussions online.
– Most chapters end with a discussion of alternatives to Google products. These hacks serve the reader well by intelligently discussing the pros and cons of other products (e.g. Flickr or Mint).

What’s bad?
– The usage of margins is a little strange. Most pages have a wide blank margin. On some pages, tips and extra tricks appear in the margin. But some pages also have figures in the margin. I’m not sure why figures sometimes appear in the margin and sometimes don’t.
– You always wish for more coverage of your favorite things. The Google Chart API gets half a tip when it really is quite worthy of a tip or two in its own right. But the book has to stop at some point.

One interesting tidbit is that the working title of this book was Google Office Hacks. It rang up with that title on my O’Reilly receipt and that’s the title I see when I enter the ISBN number into Google Books:

ISBN shows a different title

But I think the name “Google Apps Hacks” is not only more accurate but more fun, so I’m glad they changed the title. Another interesting tidbit is that Philipp Lenssen wrote this book using Google Docs.

Should you buy this book? If you read my blog on a regular basis, you’d probably like it. This book would be an especially good match for:
– people that want to run a small business or startup more productively for less money
– hackers and people that like to tinker with web services
– people that enjoyed the original Google Hacks book
– power users or webmasters that want to learn about Google’s products and how to get more out of them

If you’re looking to get a gift for a non-savvy to less savvy user, I’d recommend Rule the Web. But if you’re looking for a gift for a savvy user, anyone with an interest in Google, or someone that uses Gmail/Google Calendar/Google Docs/Google Spreadsheets, then I’d definitely recommend this book.

One of my pet peeves is when a “Hacks” book turns out to be more like a user manual. That’s not an issue with this book — it really does show you lots of cool ways to hack, mod, tune, and tweak Google Apps. Google Apps Hacks is packed full of ideas that can keep you busy for quite a while. I expect this book to be a hot seller at the O’Reilly store during Maker Faire this weekend.

22 Responses to Review: Google Apps Hacks (Leave a comment)

  1. .

    surprised you didn’t comment about those cool artists themes debuting today

    wonder which is the most popular so far

  2. ..

    Surprised you didn’t comment about those cool artists themes debuting today

    Wonder which is the most popular so far?

  3. I have my own small library of hack books. And my own advice about books that talk about , wordpress, SEO, google apps etc is: they crystallize the collective unconsciousness of thousands of bloggers and pro and semi pro web experts in one clear manual. What I mean by that is, I read about a dozen blogs that deal with the subject of web 2.0. However, often times I have a mess in my head regarding the best ways to practically implement the current advice on web 2.0. Hack books like Google office hacks, help put it all together.

  4. The Google Site so obviously solves a problem I have been working with that I can’t believe it. The problem is simply that I have projects and tasks that are worked on by different people, who may or may not have access to my machine. By simply keeping a running tab of what is being worked on there, will allow everyone involved to have access to the data wherever they are.

    The problem still exists if they can not get connected, but this sounds like a minor inconvenience compared to the open access. I am going to go explore this more now!


  5. Bought this yesterday online and I can’t wait for it to arrive. That spreadsheet hack with Google Sets is exactly the kind of thing I was hoping to see in this book. I am a Google Apps Small Business Solutions Provider, and I have a feeling this book will further enhance my abilities to provide support and insight into Google Apps and related products.

    Good to see your endorsement of this book, that tells me I made a smart purchase.

  6. Great review, Matt. I actually just moved over to the Google Apps platform for all of my business communications / scheduling / document sharing. Best thing I’ve done so far this year. I haven’t opened MS Outlook in like a month – don’t miss it one bit! I love the cloud, and the cloud loves me back.

    Just ordered the book from Amazon – can’t wait to get my hands on it!

  7. Amazing how many “people that want to run a small business or startup more productively for less money” don’t know apps and tools exist. I’ve been converting family and office computers over to ubuntu and using apps that can be gotten online (such as these). A client scheduling solution would rock for small business.

  8. Matt,

    Talking about your presentation in Web 2.0 Expo. That nice T-Shirt must be a present from Mrs. Cutts, right? 🙂

  9. I’ve just amazon uk’d it and it’s only available for £94 – another shop shows release date as April but still saying it’s a preorder. It’ll have to be ordered and waited for – it sounds like something that I’d enjoy reading! My circle of friends always share any new hints we have for google so it’d be nice to be ahead of the game once or twice.
    Very interested to hear the book was written with google docs! Is there nothing google can’t do?

  10. Matt,
    I would like to suggest a NOREAD tag for google in case if you have duplicated content on portion of your webpage, lets say for legal reasons or something, a Google ID such as noread would help Google and other search engines to avoid the entire block of text.
    something like text

    What do you think? is there something like that out there I don’t know of?

    Thanks alot


  11. Really happy you like it!!

    I wanted to add a comment about the Google Chart API tip, as you raise an interesting point. We laid out the basic table of contents when we started the book (it was written/ edited/ laid out more or less sequentially) and then added bits & pieces and hacks throughout during writing, like when coming across new tips. When new products were released by Google during writing, we tried to add them too, but as you say, we had to wrap it up at some point to deliver it all freshly as well.
    It’s a very interesting experience to write a book on such a dynamic product set. Imagine completely new products coming out during writing — like Google Sites, the Charts API, or the Google Sky site — or menus by Google Docs getting a fresh face during the final stages of writing. In the end this challenge was really fun though, and we were truly glad Google Docs saw its redesign a couple of days before we finalized things, not after!

    As for the page margins, I’ll ping O’Reilly on this as well.

    > I’ve just amazon uk’d it and it’s only available for £94

    Whoops. I’ll ask O’Reilly about this, it’s at below $20 at and ~$30 at O’Reilly’s shop (and ~30€ in at the moment…).

  12. Web 2.0 Expo really have showcased many new tech and internet things. It was really good..

  13. interesting

    BTW Matt you might want to get teh QDF (query deserves freshness) guys to look at searches like “Election News” on google uk

    its returning results from the 2005 election 🙂 and not yesterdays elections

  14. my personal small google hack (via one of the wonderful APIs)

    looking forward to hack/mashup the others services. found out that it helps me to understand google better, even SEO wise…

  15. Amazing how many “people that want to run a small business or startup more productively for less money” don’t know apps and tools exist. I’ve been converting family and office computers over to ubuntu and using apps that can be gotten online (such as these). A client scheduling solution would rock for small business.

  16. “usage of margins is a little strange.”

    yeah , I found that a little strange too.. but its always good for scribble space 🙂

  17. Got mine yesterday. Pretty solid book. I’m not sure how but I already read it from cover to cover.

  18. Morris Rosenthal


    On the margins, it’s an 8″ wide page. Designers have to use wide margins with wide pages, otherwise the book ends up looking like a term paper with a bunch of type on long lines, and is a drag to read. You may notice that a lot of how-to type books change to a two column format just to break up long text lines, just like magazines. I used to rail against the trades for filling up margins with useless elements, I guess I still do, but when I designed some large format books myself, I found it the choice was to either leave big blank margins or to put stuff in them.


  19. My copy just arrived today (can’t wait to get home and thumb through it. I ordered it the morning this post was written so I am actually surprised in how fast O’Reilly got it from door to door. I will reply later with some of my thoughts.

    Matt, you should have gotten a cut from these. I wonder how many units you sold just by writing this post.

  20. Brian McDowell, for every book I review, there’s probably 3-4 that I buy and decide not to review..

  21. So I thumbed through the book last night and found some nice tips in there. I love when you are able to pick up on functionality that you were not aware of. I get so annoyed with constantly typing in my Google analytics password every time I switch accounts. This morning I created a primary GA login for 3 separate accounts I work on so I can toggle back and forth. I then made keyword shortcuts to about 15 individual reports. Just finding this functionality will save so many keystrokes and bounces a day.

    I am also looking into how I can use this home grown Google Analytics API. (scheduled email – custom outlook rule – parse XML).

    Thanks again Matt.

  22. I think Google Sites for Intranet is pretty slick. This may be quite a useful solution for our business.

    I noticed when I clicked on the sample site for “Company Intranet” that under the headline of ‘Important Links’ there is a line which reads:
    “Benefits A one stop shot to get all of your benefits information”.
    I don’t know if I would like a shot of information but do like a shop of information. 🙂