Google Docs Use: Just a Blip

By Josh Catone
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A few weeks ago on this blog we talked about why Microsoft might not need to fear Google Docs quite yet. Despite a lot of attention paid among the early adopter press (read: web 2.0 tracking blogs like this one), not many people actually use Google Docs. The free, desktop Microsoft Office competitor may have almost 4 times as many users as Google’s suite of web-based tools.

New numbers from Compete suggest that things are even worse than they appear for Google’s hopes of competing with Microsoft in the office. Though Compete reports that the combined number of users for Google’s Docs and Spreadsheets is 4.4 million — peanuts compared to Microsoft’s Office install base and Google’s total traffic, but still a healthy number — more than half of those visitors don’t get past the landing page. 58% of unique visitors to Google Docs and Spreadsheets in September 2008 never actually touched the applications themselves.

Even more disappointing for Google, according to Compete the time spent on site is miserable. One would expect that average time per user would be fairly high for a word processing application — after all, college students spend hours in front of Microsoft Word typing up papers each week. Compete found that visitors to Google Docs and Spreadsheets apps are only spending about 5 minutes per month on the site, and only visiting about 3 days out of each month.

That suggests to us that Google’s tools might be used more for viewing and reading purposes — a way to send documents and be sure they will be readable when they arrive — rather than actual editing and writing. If that’s the case, that’s bad news for Google. Microsoft is preparing to launch their own free web-based Office tools to complement their desktop software. If people are really only using Google Docs as a document viewer and still using Microsoft Office for serious word processing, they may just switch to Microsoft’s online tools for convenience purposes to share and do light editing of documents.

However, we’ve also noted that Google has been rapidly developing its web office offerings and they’re getting better at a quick pace. As Google’s tools become more feature rich, Microsoft may find itself in competition with Google based more completely on the merits of each company’s web office applications. Further, Google does appear to be making a push to get more mainstream users using Docs and Spreadsheets. They just added a Docs gadget to Gmail Labs, and they also booted StarOffice, a desktop office software suite based on, from their Google Pack software bundle, prompting us to wonder if the company is planning to replace it with desktop wrappers for Google Docs and Spreadsheets, perhaps linked to their Chrome browser.

If and when all that happens, things will definitely get more interesting. For now, though, Google has a huge uphill battle to climb.

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  • Probably the possibility to export from Office to Office online will be one of this factors that will make users switch from Google Docs.

    Google has to market its doc suite more aggressively, maybe through mobile apps.

  • Thomas

    If you have actually used Google docs for writing a project you will quickly realize it is worthless for 80% of people.

    Yes it is handy for a quick and dirty document, but it’s formatting capacity is terrible!

  • james

    agree with above. The hype is there, but heck, its never going to be able to compete with the mighty ms office, that suite is sweet. Office for mac 2008, love it! MS could/should just integrate this with the web a bit more and that would be that. The web (javascript) just isnt designed for making these large complex apps, you can argue that the new bytecode js compilers for the next gen browsers will change, but na, keep the desktop apps I say, just integrate with the web more, save docs online, access online etc in a FREE easy way like apple does).

  • Google have the money and the people. Can’t they just create their own branded version of OpenOffice which integrates with Google Docs? It wouldn’t be the first time they’ve done something like this. Look at Chrome.

  • We are a Google Apps shop, and Google Docs is the weakest tool in the chest. Conceptually it’s a great idea, but in practice there are too many limitations. Our font set isn’t supported, and we cannot embed our stationary templates into the system…

    Also, we cannot share “Directories” inside the Google Docs framework. This is a major drawback… meaning we would have to manually share every single document. Can you say “pain in the butt?”

  • jcallas

    In my opinion people just do not want to load/store docs at a third party site. Think this applies no matter what product is being used. Internet connections go down and while it usually sucks not to be connected, at least with local application and storage I am not completely out for the count.

  • Marc

    But as web apps become more robust and secure and Internet connectivity and speed become non-issues, won’t web-based tools become more popular? Especially if free.

    Isn’t it fair to assume that Google is content right now being there ahead of the rest of em? Just testing things out and slowly building it’s user base. We’re hearing about the upcoming Windows 7 and “cloud computing” whereby their will be a shift, or at least an attempt to move from desktop applications to apps/services that reside online. So “just a blip” right now, sure. Because most of us are not ready yet for this ‘bold new era’ of computing. But still a blip ahead of the curve.

  • @jcallas

    I agree with this. Considering my company to be virtual, internet is required regardless. Whether VPN, or through some other means of accessing the remote server, I’m still dependent on an internet connection. A redundant internet connection is definitely called for in remote document/data/etc. storage.

  • Marc

    @somecallmejosh and @jcallas

    I share your concerns. For now. But we “gotta stop living in the past man”. ;) It won’t be too long before Internet speed and connection problems will become non-issues and security will be close to airtight (at least in developed nations). Remember the first days of e-commerce? People were scared, hesitant and untrusting. Today most of us don’t think twice when placing an online order. The point is, if it makes sense from the service provider’s point of view to move to web-based tools and the benefits are passed on to consumers, it may very well become the natural way to do things, and Google and other providers maybe very well be ahead of the curve in that sense.