Review of Google Docs

  • Tagged with:
  • Budgeting,
  • Collaboration,
  • Excel,
  • Google Docs,

I’ve been using Google Docs spreadsheet more and more due to its awesome ability to share spreadsheets with multiple people via the web. You get to see in real time which cell someone else is editing and you can have multiple people editing a particular spreadsheet simultaneously.

I met with Rickard Wärnelid of Corality yesterday, and we got talking about collaboration functionality within spreadsheets. (Rickard subsequently posted some comments about using Excel’s shared workbook functionality on his financial model audit blog.) I don’t use Excel’s shared workbook functionality mainly because I do most of my modeling work alone. However, as Rickard points out, Excel spreadsheets that have this sharing functionality turned on have limited functionality – so much so that I could not see myself wanting to use it.

When I do need to work with others (e.g. a client, a colleague) I generally make sure only one of us is in the spreadsheet at any given time. This involves phone calls, emails or IMs to ensure that you are “it” and can safely open the model and make changes. Clearly this is suboptimal – something Google, Zoho, and others have latched onto with their web spreadsheet offerings. Now even Microsoft is coming to the party with Office 2010 – which by all accounts will provide similar collaboration functionality.

Of all Google Docs’ features, collaboration is the one that might get me to switch away from Excel. So, I thought I’d do two things: 1) publish a cash tracking spreadsheet I developed in Google Docs and have been using with my wife to track and understand what we are spending our cash on, and 2) list what I have found to be the good and the bad about Google Docs (vs Excel of course).

Cash Tracking Spreadsheet

Cash Tracking Spreadsheet

My first comment is that I spent far longer developing this Google Doc spreadsheet than I would have spent had I built it in Excel. Partly this is because I know Excel so much better, but mainly because the web interface just slows everything down. My modeling speed was about the same as using Excel after having consumed 6 beers over a 2 hour period – something I am sure I have done before. I guess I could have built the whole thing in Excel first and then imported it into Google Docs, but there would likely have been so many incompatabilities that I would have had to fix, that it would hardly have been worth it. Plus, that wasn’t the point of the exercise.

However, and this is the key point – I would never have used Excel for this model! The whole point was that my wife and I needed to be able to access the spreadsheet numerous times a day and often at the same time. Using Excel, the only workable solution would have been to ask her to email me with all her transaction details so that I alone could enter it into the spreadsheet. (A very low W.A.F.♥ rating.) Emailing boring numbers to me is not nearly as exciting as entering the data into a spreadsheet and seeing instant results i.e. calculations, charts, etc. So, I am pretty sure this method would never have worked anyway.

So, here’s a summary of my experience with Google Docs spreadsheet:


  • fantastic ability to collaborate with others
  • very simple interface – no complex menus, toolbars, ribbons, etc
  • if you know Excel you’ll immediately know how to use Google Docs
  • it works


  • the user interface is fiddly and slow (compared to Excel) – things like resizing columns, moving around the grid, inserting, deleting, etc
  • charts are basic and hard to position on the grid (problem if you like to have full control over where on the grid you lay things out – which I do)
  • all formatting is adhoc – no styles or global formatting settings
  • no formula traceability

Verdict – Google Docs rocks! (actually, “slow waltzes” is probably more accurate.)

Let me know if you get some use out of the cash tracking model.

♥ = Wife Acceptance Factor

10 Comments so far Join the Discussion

  1. J. Money

    17th July 2009 at about 5am

    haha…love that “wife acceptance factor” part, good looking out. consider it included in my Best Financial Calculators” roundup for sure.

  2. Dave

    19th July 2009 at about 8pm

    Well written. I’m just an average “Mom and Dad” user. I’ve only dabbled with Google documents, spreadsheets and calendar. At a superficial glance, they seem pretty good (and will surely continue to improve). I like the idea of being able to access my email, files and calendar from any computer connected to the internet. There are 2 main reasons why I’ve resisted the temptation to do everything with Google: 1. Can I trust them with my personal information (i.e. will they maintain confidentiality) and 2. What happens if Google ceases to exist – how will I reconstruct my life?

  3. sumwise

    19th July 2009 at about 8pm

    Thanks for your comment Dave. I understand your concern, but an alternate view might be, 1. if they did indeed violate your privacy or deal irresponsibly with your personal information, they’d soon be out of business – and they’re a seriously big company, and 2. I believe it is far more likely that I will somehow lose all of my locally stored files (fire, theft, technical problem, etc) than google going broke. In any case, so long as you can save, download, convert your work, then you’ll have time to bail out before the ship goes down (so to speak). Cheers. Darren.

  4. Dave

    20th July 2009 at about 8pm

    Having now played with Google spreadsheets for 20 minutes or so, I’m aware of the following: 1. No print preview; 2. No way of defining the print area; 3. The text in one cell runs over the adjacent cell to the left only sometimes; and 4. No way of setting the row height and/or column width to a specific size. I’m sure there are many more, but these are some of the obvious shortfalls (in addition to the ones you’ve already mentioned). I would expect that Google will adress all of these in time (although it may be a very long time). Still like the idea of shared spreadsheets that are accesible from anywhere.

  5. Steve

    21st July 2009 at about 9pm

    Where you say ‘very simple interface’… that’s because it has ‘very few features’.

    Do Google seriously propose Google Docs as a real alternative to MS Office or OpenOffice?

    This has to be the worst Office suite I’ve ever used, even going back to the pre-GUI days.

  6. Steve

    21st July 2009 at about 9pm

    (please notify me of follow-up comments).

  7. sumwise

    22nd July 2009 at about 10am

    Here’s a link to a PC World article on the subject.

  8. Jon Wittwer

    1st August 2009 at about 6am

    I’ve created many spreadsheet templates for Google Docs and I always first create the spreadsheet in Excel, then upload to Google. For me this is about 10 times faster than starting from scratch with a Google Spreadsheet. After uploading, I usually need to make a few changes, but they are often very minor.
    All the best, Jon W.

  9. ksr00551

    3rd September 2009 at about 1am

    just wanted to add that i have been using your template to maintain the expense sheet. i used have an excel sheet before for almost 36 months. it is great stuff on the net. just a small query. in the dashboard i am able to see only one sheet data. can i change the reference of dashboard from 1 sheet to other. for example i have tracked my expense for august in one sheet. now for September i have opened a new sheet. the dashboard looks stuck on the august sheet only.

  10. sumwise

    3rd September 2009 at about 9am

    ksr00551 – thanks for your question. Unfortunately there is no easy way to do this in google docs spreadsheet. (Even in Excel it is not trivial.) To get the DASHBOARD to refer to your new sheet you will need to unhide all columns and rows in the DASHBOARD sheet and edit the formulae to refer to your new sheet. Although there is a Find and Replace function provided (Edit>Find and Replace) this actually does not find text within a formula, so you can’t use it. If you were doing this in Excel you’d simply use Find and Replace to look for the old worksheet name and replace it with the new worksheet name. Of course, in google docs, if you edit one formula correctly in a group of like cells, then you can simply copy and paste this to the other cells you want to update with the new reference.

    Given the difficulty of doing all of this, and the high possibility of making an error, I would highly recommend putting all of your transaction data into the one worksheet – i.e. treat the CASHTRACK worksheet like a database. If you want to view only certain months at a time, you could do this on a separate analysis worksheet.

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