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  1. Computer Skills
  2. Google Docs
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Enhance Google Docs and Sheets With Add-ons

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Difficulty:BeginnerLength:LongLanguages:
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What You'll Be Creating

Google Docs and Sheets are excellent tools for creating word documents and spreadsheets. They provide virtually all of the basic functionality you need to edit, format and share your files. However, if you are looking to Google's cloud service to replace MS Office you will have noticed that there are still a few more advanced features missing.

The new add-ons feature changes this. Add-ons are small third party applications that can be installed directly into the Docs and Sheets apps (Slides and Forms are not currently supported), and they fill in the gaps in the native features of the software. Launched in March 2014, add-ons are still new and their number is growing all the time. Most of the best ones are free, while some of the more powerful utilities also offer premium versions with extra features.

In this tutorial, I'll show you how to get started with add-ons—how to install them, use them and remove them—and then guide you through ten of the best to get you started.

Installing Add-ons

All add-ons are found and installed through the Docs or Sheets interface, in a very similar way to how Chrome extensions are installed. Open a document and go to Add-ons > Get add-ons and you can see all the available options for the app you are using.

Browse through the highlighted add-ons, click the All button in the top left corner to select a category, or use the search box to find something you want to install.

Click your chosen add-on followed by the + icon to install it. The screen that opens shows what permissions the add-on requires—what data and which parts of your account it needs to access. Assuming you are okay with this click Accept and installation will complete.

Check add-ons permissions
Check what an add-on wants to do before installing

Using Your Add-ons

Once installed your add-ons are accessible through the Add-ons option in the menu bar. Hover your mouse pointer over them to reveal their options. Most have two: the first launches the add-on, the second is for help (which is normally very limited).

Click to launch the add-on and it will open in a sidebar on the right of the screen. You can only view one add-on at a time. To close it click the X button.

Add-ons open in sidebars
Add-ons run in a sidebar within Docs or Sheets

Managing and Removing Add-ons

You won't need to do much to manage your add-ons. You don't need to worry about updating them—they are loaded each time you use them so you will always have the most up to date version. You can disable them for specific documents, and also report bugs to the developer.

Go to Add-ons > Manage add-ons. You will now see a list of all the add-ons you have installed. Click Manage to see a list of options. Untick Use in this document to disable the add-on from the current document you are viewing. Click Remove to uninstall the add-on from your account altogether.

Remove add-ons

10 Essential Add-ons For Docs and Sheets

There's a huge number of add-ons for both the Docs and Sheets apps, and the number is growing all the time. Here's ten of the best to get you started.

Thesaurus

Thesaurus is the most basic and most essential of all Docs add-ons. A perfect companion to the built-in spell checker, it will suggest alternative words for you to use as you type. Sadly, add-ons are not yet integrated into the right click context menus within the app, but Thesaurus is still trivial to use. Simply highlight a word then go to Add-ons > Thesaurus > Find Synonyms for selected word and it will appear in the sidebar to the right.

Thesaurus

With the Thesaurus sidebar open you can now type words straight into the search box to find suggestions for other words.

Table of Contents

The Table of Contents add-on automatically generates a contents list to help you navigate longer and more complex text documents. They are built based on your usage of paragraph styles within the document and will only work if you use these consistently—it won't recognise any other chapter or section headings if they are only styled as regular paragraph text.

The styles that used within Table of Contents are the default Heading styles, and they produce nested results. So, each Part within your document should be styled as Heading 1; each Chapter as Heading 2; each Section within a Chapter as Heading 3 and so on.

Heading styles
Use Heading styles to create your table of contents

Go to Add-ons > Table of Contents > Show in sidebar to view your table of contents. It'll take a second to be created, and you should the refresh icon to update it whenever you make any changes.

Table of contents
Set how detailed you need the contents to be

All of the items in the list are clickable links so you can jump quickly to any specific section or chapter. If you have a particularly complex document click the Display until level option drop down box and choose how much information you want to be displayed. For instance, choosing 1 would show only content using the Heading 1 style. Click Refresh to activate this.

Finally, it isn't possible to add the Table of Contents directly to the document itself, but you can copy and paste it from the sidebar into the document body. When doing this the links will also remain in place. However, these links point to the online Google Docs file, rather than acting as bookmarks within the file. If you're planning to export the document for offline use in an application such as Word remove the links first otherwise they will not work. Click on a link and click Remove to do this for each item.

Track Changes

If you use Google Docs as part of a team then Track Changes is one of the most important add-ons you can use. It tracks all the edits made by all of the users working on the same document, and gives you an easy way to accept, delete or change them.

Track Changes is an automated tool. Open it in the sidebar by clicking on Add-ons > Track Changes > Show Track Changes. All changes to the document will appear in real-time, colour-coded by user. All changes are listed, not only the content of text edits, but formatting changes as well. Ticking Highlight my New Changes will also cause your changes to be highlighted within the body of the document.

Track changes in docs
Every change is clearly listed

To accept or reject edits simply click the green tick icon or red x icon. Alternatively click Accept All to accept all the changes that have been made.

You can override any changes to a document using the Revision history option within all the Google Docs apps. Go to File > See Revision history to see all previous versions of the document. Click Show more detailed revisions to see all saved versions of the document and click one to restore it.

Maps for Docs

If you ever need to add a map to a document the Maps for Docs add-ons makes this possible with just a couple of mouse clicks.

Highlight part of an address is a document then go to Add-ons > Maps for Docs > Get location. A window will open showing the location on a map. If it's right then click Paste to Doc and the map image will be pasted into the document just below the address you selected. Drag the image to the right place if you need to.

add maps to docs

Maps for Docs works with precise or broad addresses. Searching a house number and street name, or postcode, will show a zoomed in map of an exact location; a city or even country name will produce a zoomed-out image of that location.

Mapping Sheets

Along similar lines to Maps for Docs, Mapping Sheets is an add-on for Sheets that converts a list of addresses in a spreadsheet into a Google Map.

Mapping Sheets works off a tab in your spreadsheet called Data. If you're using a pre-existing spreadsheet then you need to rename the tab containing the info you are mapping. Right click on the tab and select Rename then enter Data.

Now go to Add-ons > Mapping Sheets > Start Mapping. In the sidebar that opens choose the columns that contain your addresses, plus any other columns you have that you can use to filter the data with. Click Build, followed by View to see the data on a map.

see addresses on a map
Addresses are displayed in a custom Google Map

HelloSign

The HelloSign add-on enables you to get secure and legally binding eSignatures on your documents. It is free for up to three signatures per month, and requires a subscription for unlimited use, with prices starting at $13 per month.

HelloSign can be used to have documents signed by just yourself, by yourself and others or just by others. To only sign it yourself click Just Me then draw, using your mouse, a signature in the box and drag that signature onto the appropriate place on the document.

HelloSign

To get signatures from other users too, you need to set up the document first. Click Me and Others or Just Others under Who needs to sign? and then enter the names and email addresses of all the required signers. If you need them to sign in a specific order tick the Assign signer order box and click on the up and down arrows to re-order them. Click Continue.

Now you must add the signature boxes to the document. Drag the Signature icon into place on the document and click the Who Signs here drop down list to choose the signer. Add as many signature boxes as are needed and click the dotted-square icon in the top left of the window to align them.

You can additionally add boxes for the signer to add their initials, a comment in a text box, to tick a checkbox or to add the date they signed.

Sign documents
You can add a signing date as well as a signature box

Finally, click Continue and your document will be prepared for emailing. The addresses of the signers will be displayed for you to double check, then add a subject header and message. Click Request Signature and the mail will be sent.

To view your signed documents click the Settings icons in the HelloSign sidebar in Docs then click Documents. All your signed documents are stored here for your reference.

Split Names

Split Names is a simple add-on for Google Sheets that separates a single Name column into separate columns for each part of the name. It won't just split John Smith into their own first name and last name cells, but can optionally add a title, middle name and suffix as well.

It's perfect for use in conjunction with the Forms feature in Google Docs, where you may prompt a user to enter their name but may not want to give them separate boxes for each part of their name. Once you've split their name you can then use the data alongside a mail merge add-on and address the person by their first name only.

To use Split Names highlight the Names column in your spreadsheet then go to Add-ons > Split Names > Start. In the box that open tick or clear the My column has header option as necessary, then choose which columns you want to add. Each column will be added to the right of your selected name column.

split names in sheets
Choose how many name columns you need

UberConference

UberConference is another add-on to aid users collaborating on a project. It is used to create conference calls or text chats between the users working on a document.

Click the Invite button and the sidebar will display the users with access to the document. Choose the ones you want to add—they will have the option to join the chat via computer or phone, and a text chatting option is also available. 

UberConference for Docs

For someone to connect through their phone they will need to dial-in to the call and use the PIN they will be sent when you invite them. The dial-in number is US-only for the free version of UberConference. You'll need to upgrade to the premium version to get country-specific numbers.

Workflows

If you need feedback, approval or sign-off on a document then Workflows is the ideal add-on for this. You can add one or more reviewers who will be sent a link to your document, and will be given the ability to add a comment as well as approving or rejecting your document. Each reviewer will need to have the Workflows add-on installed as well.

To add reviewers you first need to give them edit access to your document. Go to File > Share and add their email address and ensure they have the edit permission (which is turned on by default). Then add the same email address in the Add a reviewer box in the Workflows sidebar, along with a message if needed.

The reviewer will get an email with a link to the document, and they can provided their feedback. The approval status of the document will be displayed in the sidebar. If you should need to make changes, do so, the click Reset approval in the sidebar and re-add your reviewers.

Workflows

Consistency Checker

For any document—and especially technical documents—consistency of language and grammar is vitally important. If your budget doesn't stretch to a human proof reader then the Consistency Checker will take care of the job for you.

This add-on checks that you are using spelling and grammar in a consistent manner. It will check for spellings, abbreviations, numbers (for example, that you don't type both three and 3 in the same document), hyphenations and more. It's a very simple tool: go to File > Add-ons > Consistency Checker and click Open. Now just click Scan and the add-on will work through the various categories it tests, suggesting changes along the way.

Consistency Checker

Conclusion

Add-ons are a very useful yet very simple way of enhancing the functionality of Google Docs and Sheets. They add no bloat and there's no performance hit when using them, so there's really no downside to installing them. New add-ons are constantly becoming available, and each one only serves to increase the value of Docs and Sheets. If you've been holding off uninstalling that old copy of Office for fear that Docs is not a worthy replacement, now might just be the time.

Give Google Docs add-ons a try, and let us know your favorites—or any problems you hit with the add-ons—in the comments below!

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