Microsoft Word vs. Google Docs: Which works better for business?

Has Docs caught up to Word as an enterprise productivity application? We compare the two word processors to see which wins in today's online environment

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Online photos and research

We decided to spruce up our report with photos from online sources—without leaving Word or Google Docs. We also tested out how easy or hard it is to do online research from within each application.

Microsoft Word

Word does a very good job of letting you do research and find online images without having to go to your browser—the tools for doing it are built right into Word.

We wanted to find a photo of a steel plant for the report. We went to the Insert tab on the ribbon and clicked Online Pictures. (Note: There is no equivalent for this in the Mac version.) In response, a pop-up box appeared that let me do a Bing image search (you can expand the search to Facebook and Flickr). We saw dozens of images, all of which were covered by a Creative Commons license that allows them to be used legally and without paying royalties. (We didn’t see any way to review the individual license for each photo. We could have expanded the search to find all results, even those not covered by Creative Commons, but we prefer to stay on the right side of the law.)

word wikipedia

Word lets you search Wikipedia directly from Word using an add-in installed from the Office Store.

To insert the picture, we just had to click on it. This brought up a tab in the Ribbon that gave access to Word’s very nice photo-editing tools, including sharpening, softening, changing contrast, color-editing, adding effect, determining how text wraps around it, and more.

Word offers several useful tools for online research, including the ability to search Wikipedia directly from Word using an add-in installed from the Office Store. Just click Wikipedia on the Insert tab and install the add-in. Then all you do is click on Insert > Wikipedia and type your search term into the box that appears in the right pane.

Another tool is even more useful: Smart Lookup. Highlight the text in your document you’d like to research, then right-click and from the menu that appears select Smart Lookup. A right pane appears with search results from Wikipedia, Bing image search and the web.

What’s missing is the ability to do a search on any topic or words, not just those in your document. For example, if you want to search for the annual steel output of the U.S. in 2015, and you don’t have those precise words in your document, you’ll still have to head to your web browser to do the search.

Google Docs

No great surprise: The biggest search engine on the planet lets you search for images and research from right within Google Docs, and does a very good job of it.

Click the small icon of a four-sided star at the bottom right of the screen, and a panel titled Explore appears on the right side of the screen; it has a search box on top, along with suggestions for information and images you might want to include in your document, based on the document’s content. These suggestions are divided into three sections: Topics, Images, and Related Research.

We tested the feature using a made-up report titled ‘Pain in the Rust Belt.” We first looked at the Topics section, which came up with a mixed bag of suggestions. We mentioned the Rust Belt several times in the report as well as steel plants and the auto industry, and the topics it chose were Sun Belt, General Motors and a documentary titled “Red White and Blueprints: A Rust Belt Documentary.” Click any of the listed topics, and it does a web search.

docs research

The biggest search engine on the planet lets you search for images and research from right within Google Docs, and does a very good job of it.

Images had similar mixed results. They included a photo of an abandoned factory and a map showing the Rust Belt, which were on target. But they also included a graphic of the human body titled “Codification of Orthotics.” (That’s likely because of the “Pain in the Rust Belt,” title.)

The Related Research section was much better. Three articles were included—two specifically about the Rust Belt, and one about Youngstown, Ohio, which is located in the Rust Belt.

So rather than relying on Google to guess what we were looking for, we decided to use the tool to do a search. When we search on the phrase “steel plant,” the results came up on the right side of the screen under three separate tabs: Web, Images, and Drive. Each result showed the title of the page that was found, its URL, and a paragraph description.

For the most part, the web results were relevant. (The exception was a single outlier, the top search result, a site whose summary read, “Steelplant is about the colorful, bizarre and extreme. Street smart, weed infused and graffiti covered gifts. Take a puff and pass it around.”)

The Images tab was more on target—no weed; only photos of actual steel plants. We found far more images than we did when using Word—we scrolled through them and never came to the end.

To check out the copyright status of any photo, hover your mouse over it, then click the small search icon that appears. You’ll see a larger version of the photo, plus a general description of its copyright status, such as “Image is labeled for commercial use with modification.” To insert a photo, place your cursor where you want the photo to be placed, then click the photo. Underneath the photo will be the URL of the website where the photo is from. You can leave it there, or delete it if you’d like.

As for the Drive tab, it does a search of your Google Drive for the search term.

Google Docs has one more useful research tool. Right-click any word in a document and you can either get a definition or do a search on the word.

Bottom line

Google Docs beats out Word here because it find more online images, makes it easier to figure out the exact copyright of images, and lets you search the Web for anything, not just words within documents.

Live collaboration

My report writing was in full swing, but we needed to find out how well Word and Google Docs let me simultaneously work on the same document with others. Online collaboration allows several people to make edits, see what edits other people are making, and chat with them while the work goes on. For groups, it’s a great way to get work done together and done fast.

Microsoft Word

Microsoft Office, including Word, has always lagged behind Google Docs when it comes to live collaboration. It lags still. Making a live connection with someone else is an awkward (sometimes ugly) process.

word collaborate

Collaborating on a Word document can be a complicated process.

Let’s say you’re working on a Word document and want to collaborate on it with someone else. You click the Share button on the upper-right corner of the screen and a Share pane appears. You then type a name into the “Invite people” box and Word searches your Contacts list. If the person isn’t in your Contacts list, you can instead type an email address. You can add multiple people this way.

Underneath the name, choose whether you want the person to be able to edit the document, or just view it while you’re working on it. Type in a message (if you want to) and click Share.

Word will send an email to the people with whom you want to collaborate. They then have to click a confusingly named button underneath the file name, “View in OneDrive,” at which point, they’re sent to the online version of Word. But they can’t collaborate yet. First, they have to click “Edit Document” and, from the screen that appears, choose to edit either in the Word client or in the online version of Word. Only then will they be able to make changes and see the changes you’ve made.

That’s bad enough, but there’s another issue as well: You can collaborate live with people only if you’ve saved your document to OneDrive. If you try to collaborate on a document that’s not in OneDrive and you click Share, you get a message that you first have to save the document to an online location. By “online location,” Microsoft actually means OneDrive—if you save the document to Google Drive or any other online location, you’ll still get the same message.

Once several people are working on the document together, you can see the changes the others make in real time—when one user adds text or edits the document, you’ll see a colored cursor indicating their presence (each person gets a different color). Hover your mouse over the cursor and you’ll see the name of the person. In my tests, there was no lag between the time someone made edits and when they show up in another person’s document; it truly is real-time.

If you’re the person who started the sharing session, you’ll see a list of every person currently editing the document in the Share pane. Click that person’s icon and you’ll see other ways to contact them, including via email, video, and Skype.

If you use Office 365 Business Premium or Office 365 Business and you’re on a corporate network, you get considerably more collaboration features. You get direct access to your corporate address book on the Share pane, making it easier to find co-workers and share with them. And if you click the icon of anyone currently working on the document, a screen pops out with the ways you can contact them, including via Skype for Business texting, phone calling, video or email.

(For more details about sharing with Word and other Office business applications on a corporate network, see Review: In Office 2016 for Windows, collaboration takes center stage.)

Google Docs

Google Docs really shines when it comes to live collaboration. Unlike Microsoft Word, there’s no kludginess in the live-sharing process, no jumping through hoops, no confusion on what to do or how to do it. It’s as natural as creating a document.

docs sharing

Google Docs really shines when it comes to live collaboration. 

To collaborate live with others, click the Share button on the upper right of the screen, then type in the email addresses of the people with whom you want to share. As you type, Google Docs looks through your Gmail contacts list; however, you can type in the email address of anyone with whom you want to share, whether or not they’re in your contact list.

For each person, you can choose whether they can edit the document, only comment on it or only view it. Type in an optional message and an email gets sent to your collaborators.

Once your collaborators receive the email, they just need to click on Open in Docs to open the file. Everyone invited can work on the document simultaneously. As with Word, everyone is identified by a colored cursor, and you can watch what they are doing real-time. Hover your mouse over the cursor to see someone’s name.

Click the chat icon at the upper right of the screen and you can chat with everyone working on the document. I found that live chatting while simultaneously working on the document made collaboration far more effective—people can decide who will work on what sections of the document, for example, or discuss edits as they’re being made.

You can also manage people’s collaboration and editing rights after you’ve first set them. Click the Share button, then click Advanced, and you’ll see a list of everyone who has access to the document. You can change their access rights (from editing to only reading, for example), and handle global settings for access to the document. This happens by choosing whether anyone with editing rights can also add new collaborators, and whether commenters and viewers should be allowed to download, print, or copy the document.

Bottom line

Google Docs is far superior to Word for live collaboration. The collaboration features have been built directly into its interface, and don’t feel like afterthoughts, as with Word. With Google Docs, it’s simple to invite people to collaborate, set their collaboration rights, and chat with them while you do the work together.

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