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How to OCR Documents for Free in Google Drive

This post is part of a series called Going Paperless.
How to Convert & Edit PDF Documents in Microsoft Word
How to OCR Documents Online With ABBYY FineReader

Google Drive makes it painless to go paperless. Its collaborative documents, spreadsheets, and presentations already help curtail paper usage, but its OCR feature helps curb the paper mess even more. 

OCR, or Optical Character Recognition, is the most important tech to help you go paperless. Scanned documents on their own are only glorified pictures of your documents, but let your computer recognize the text and they instantly become a ton more useful. We've already looked at how to OCR documents in Adobe Acrobat:

We've looked at turning PDF files into documents you can edit in Word as well:

Now if you don't have a copy of Acrobat or Word, there's an even better option: Google Drive. It includes a little-known free OCR tool that is a powerful, easy to use image to text converter. 

In this tutorial, we'll look at what is Google Drive's OCR process and simple steps to begin working with it. I'll show you how to use Google Drive to quickly convert your scanned images and PDF documents into editable text files online.

1. Scanning Your Documents for OCR

The first step and most important step in OCR is finding the PDFs or pictures that you want to convert to text files. Google Drive currently supports OCR for .jpg, .gif, .png, and PDF files up to 2MB in size. 

Pro Tip: If you want to convert multiple pages to text, PDF format is the most efficient as all pages can be uploaded in one batch.

Prepare Your Files Properly for OCR

There are a few rules of thumb to produce optimal results from OCR in Google Drive. Make sure your file is high resolution with clear contrasts and even lighting—these are by far the most important factors in ensuring a successful conversion.

Use standard fonts to ensure the best OCR results
For best results, use a standard font like Helvetica. Stay away from overly stylized fonts or text effects.

Additionally, make sure that the text being scanned is horizontal and reads from left to right. Standard typefaces, such as Helvetica and Times New Roman, will produce better results than more obscure typefaces. If you have a document that's rather unreadable, you can still attempt to OCR it, but the results likely won't be that nice.

While Google Drive supports OCR for many different languages, OCR on languages that use non-Latin character sets may be buggy and may not produce desirable results.

Gather Your Image Scans and PDF Files

If your files are on your computer, make sure that their file format is one of those supported by Google Drive. If the document or photo you want to use is physical, then scan them onto the computer. There are a couple good options to use:  

  • If you own a scanner, you can use programs like Doxie or other scanner software to digitize them for upload into Google Drive.
  • If you don’t have a scanner, your phone can be used in place of one. There are a number of apps in the App Store that “scan” physical documents into clean PDFs using a phone’s camera. 

For example, Evernote's Scannable is just one of several apps that allows you to scan documents with your smart phone. To learn more about Evernote, review the tutorial:

After taking your scan and transforming it into a clean PDF, your result should look something like this to start with:

PDF document for OCR in Google Drive
A PDF file as viewed in Adobe Acrobat Reader.

With your PDF or scanned image ready in the proper format, now let's look at how to get your files uploaded for OCR with Google Drive. 

2. Upload Your Files to Google Drive for OCR

It's a snap to convert your PDF and image files to text in Google Drive using it's OCR feature. Let's look at how to quickly do that.

To add your documents to Google Drive to get them OCRed, first go in to your Google Drive account. On the My Drive page, click the My Drive button next to the New button on the left side of the page. Select Upload Files.

Upload the files to Google Dive
Use the Upload files option to upload a file to Google Drive.

Use the Upload files option to upload a file to Google Drive. Find the file that you want to convert from PDF or image to text. Click the Open button.

Upload the files to Google Drive
Upload the files to Google Drive.

The document now appears in your Google Drive. Right-click on the document to bring up a drop-down menu.

Opening a document in your Google Drive
Open your file with Google Docs.

Click the Open with option and click Google Docs. A sheet icon appears while the file is downloading. Google is now in the process of converting your PDF or image file to text with OCR.

Opening a file to OCR it
The file is downloading and being converted from PDF or picture to text.

The file will open in Google Docs with the PDF converted to text, but with little formatting applied. You can now edit and format the new text file as you like.

The converted file after OCR
The converted file after OCR is applied in Google Drive comes out unformatted.

Luckily, changes can easily be made due to the fact that the text is editable. You can use the same steps to OCR an image file using Google Drive as well.

Converting Images to Text in Google Drive

You can quickly take your image scans into Google Drive to convert it to text using the same process as above.

Here is a .jpg image of the text we've been working with before importing it into Google Drive:

jpg image before OCR in Google Drive
A .jpg image file before using Google Drive for OCR.

Here is the same picture file after we open it with Google Docs in Google Drive:

jpg image after OCR process in Google Drive
.jpg image after OCR covernts it to text in Google Drive.

Notice that the original image appears above the line. The editable text is beneath the line. 

Google Drive's OCR feature is powerful and easy to work with, you can quickly take an image scan or PDF and convert it into a text document. Once you've added your converted text file to Google Drive, now you have access to all the powerful document management features available.

3. Managing OCR Documents in Google Drive

One huge advantage to using OCR in Google Drive is that you can easily share the new document with whomever you need to. To do so, go to File > Share, and you can add collaborators by sharing a link or sending an invitation via email. You can also click the Share button on the top right of the screen.

Another way to manage your document after converting it with OCR is to export it to another format.

The OCR document can be exported as a different format
The OCR document can be exported as a different format.

The OCR document may be exported as an editable text document, such as a Word Document or a Plain Text document, by going to File > Download As and selecting the format you want. 

Now Get Working!

Google Drive provides a quick and easy way to convert image and PDF files into editable text for free using its built-in OCR featue. 

These converted files can be easily shared or exported to different file formats for use at any time, and they're far more useful than your original scanned documents since you can now search through and copy text from everything you've scanned.

If you have any trouble OCRing your documents in Google Drive, have any other OCR tools you love, or anything else you'd like to share about going paperless, let us know in the comments!

Editorial Note: This post was originally published in 2014. It has been comprehensively revised by our staff to make it current, accurate, and up to date—with special assistance from Laura Spencer.

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