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What Is Google Sheets? (Free Online Spreadsheets Tool)

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This post is part of a series called How to Use Google Sheets (Essential Tutorial Guide).
Google Sheets vs. MS Excel: Which Spreadsheet Tool Is Better?
20 Awesome Google Sheets (Spreadsheet) Tips & Tricks

If you're looking for a spreadsheet app, have you considered Google Sheets? In this tutorial, we take a closer look at the Google spreadsheets tool. Plus, we'll answer some common question about Google Sheets like:

  • What is Google Sheets?
  • How does Google's spreadsheet work?
  • Is Google Sheets free?

In 2018, how we use and work with apps is totally different than it was five years ago. Personally, I find that I now download fewer and fewer apps and use more browser-based tools to get my work done. Web apps are now so robust that they continue to displace desktop apps.

There are few better examples of this than Google Docs, a browser-based group of productivity tools. If you've used apps like Microsoft Word, Excel, and PowerPoint in the past, you know how useful a productivity suite can be. Google Sheets is the Google Docs spreadsheet app.

Google innovated by taking this concept to the browser with Docs so that you can use them anywhere you go. The Docs suite automatically keeps your files backed up and makes it easy for everyone to collaborate.

This tutorial is going to focus on showing you Google Sheets, the spreadsheet tool that you can use in a web browser. Let's look at some of the features of Google Sheets. Let's learn more about why Sheets is so powerful, and why even seasoned spreadsheet users should give it a try.

What is Google Sheets Graphic

Why Use Spreadsheets?

You may wonder, is Google Sheets like Excel? The answer is: not exactly.

But before we talk about features and tools that are specific to Sheets, let's start off by highlighting why you should consider using a spreadsheet at all. I'm a big proponent that more people should be using spreadsheets to organize and manage their lives.

When you need to take down a note or start organizing a project, where do you do it? Many people might open a blank document in Google Docs or Microsoft Word, for example. The blank slate is a great way to start scribbling ideas down.

To me, a spreadsheet can do that as well, but with plenty of added features. If you start tracking anything that includes numbers and need to do basic math, a spreadsheet is always going to be a better choice for working with information. You can use columns and rows to organize content on the fly as well.

Tutorial Planning
I find it easier to use a spreadsheet than other apps like Docs or Word to plan my work schedule out, thanks to the structured format of rows and columns.

Because you can use formulas and functions on the data you've typed, a spreadsheet can help you understand or transform data. In the last few months, here are a few things I've used spreadsheets for in my own personal life:

  • Keywording my digital images, tracking the progress of each year's photo library
  • Tracking my monthly budget and savings goals
  • Planning new content that I write for Tuts+, setting milestones and goals to check off progress as it is completed

Besides the fact that I work heavily with spreadsheets in my day job, they've got a place in everyday life. Think about a spreadsheet the next time you're starting up a project or initiative. 

Why Use Google Sheets?

What are Google Sheets, and why should you consider using them?

Even if you want to use spreadsheets, you might be wondering how does Google Sheets work? There's plenty of good competition in Microsoft's Excel and Apple's Numbers apps. Both have also implemented versions that work in the web browser.

Even though Sheets now has other browser-based competition, I still think that it's the leading choice for simple spreadsheets. It's lightweight and easy to get started.

Excel has every possible feature you could need in a spreadsheet, but that brings complexity with it. Apple Numbers is easy to use, but the way that some features work is counterintuitive, and it doesn't properly support other spreadsheet formats.

Don't miss the fact that Sheets has some unique features that set it apart from the other choices. Let's look at the features that make Sheets worth considering as your spreadsheet app of choice.

5 Features of Google Sheets Worth Checking Out

With so many choices for spreadsheet apps, why is Google Sheets the one that you should turn to? 

In short, I think that Google Sheets shines because it's both free and easy-to-use. It only takes a Google account to log in and start building a Google Docs spreadsheet. It's hard to compete with free, and although other apps have free elements, Sheets is totally free to use.

But don't think of Sheets as a shoestring-budget replacement for Microsoft Excel. It has plenty of features that are implemented just as well as Excel and even a few features that work better in the browser. Let's look at five features of Google Sheets that make it worth using.

1. Easy Input Form Integration

Have you ever needed to get feedback or input from a visitor to your website? Sheets offers an easy way to do that and organize the responses.

Whether you're taking lunch orders from your team at work or getting details from a new client, Google makes it easy to take input from a form and put it directly into a Google Docs spreadsheet. Instead of receiving this information via email or text and having to re-type it and reformat it.

With an input form, you can set up questions, choices, and text boxes for visitors to fill out. When the user fills out their answers, that data will automatically be logged and captured into your Google Sheet for review.

To get started with this feature, jump into a Google Docs spreadsheet, and browse to Insert > Form to set up a new input form. Then, you can use the wizard to add questions to the form as you can see in the screenshot below.

Google Forms to Sheets
With Google Sheets, you can use an input form to grab responses from a visitor or client and insert that data seamlessly into the spreadsheet.

Check out the tutorial below for a guide that will help you implement a form that prints results directly to your Google Sheet:

2. Connect Spreadsheets Together

One of the reasons that I've seen people resistant to using Google Sheets is because they think certain features from Excel are missing. In reality, most of those features are already implemented in Sheets— you just have to know where to go looking for them.

A classic example of this is the ability to grab data from other spreadsheets. Using features like =IMPORTRANGE makes it possible to go and get data from totally separate workbooks.

Make sure to read the tutorial below to walk through using multiple spreadsheets in sync and pull data back and forth.

3. Learn While You Use the Product

Even though I love spreadsheets, I can see why people are intimidated by them. While they're easy to get started with, it's the formulas and functions that can feel like a lot to learn.

This brings me to another one of my favorite features of Google Sheets: the documentation that lives right inside of the app. As you start typing a function name, you'll get a really helpful drop-down option that helps you use the function, as you can see below.

Formula Instructions
As you start to type a function, you'll see information that helps you learn to apply the function.

This includes examples of how to apply each function. This "documentation on the fly" approach is one of the reasons that I think Sheets is perfect for overcoming the spreadsheet learning curve.

4. Google Sheets Add-Ons

Google has taken a pretty open approach to developing Sheets, welcoming add-ons from other developers to enhance what Sheets can do natively.

I think of add-ons in two main categories:

  1. Pure add-ons that add extra features and functionality to Google Sheets
  2. Connectivity tools like Zapier and IFTTT that help you link up Sheets to practically any other service

An example of a pure add-on is AppStoreMetrix, an add-on that you can use to track your app's performance in major app stores like Google Play or Apple's App Store. Instead of going into those dashboards and copying pasting data to a Google Sheets spreadsheet, use AppStoreMetrix to connect the two.

On the other hand, you've got services like Zapier and IFTTT. These are services that exist for one reason: to connect things together! For example, Twitter and Sheets don't work together on their own, so you need an app that sits in the middle. You could use one of those services to take tweets and automatically insert them into a spreadsheet.

Luckily, we've got a tutorial that can help you set that up. Check it out to learn more about connecting Google Sheets to a variety of services.

5. The Best Support for Collaboration

More than ever, the projects and work that we take on requires collaboration with others. As we rely on others more in our work, we need ways to bring them into our documents and work seamlessly together.

This is another feature where other apps have tried, but Google Sheets leads the way. Simply put, it has the best implementation for inviting others to work with you on a Google Sheets spreadsheet. It's the easiest way to invite other users to work on (or just view) a spreadsheet that you've been working on.

With Sheets, you can create public URL's to let anyone view a spreadsheet, or invite specific collaborators. Launch into the sharing menu at any time by clicking on the Share button in the upper right corner.

Click the Share button
Click the Share button in the upper right corner to start inviting other collaborators to your Google Sheet.

Make sure to check out the tutorial below for the complete guide to bringing collaborators into the spreadsheet to work with you:

Where to Go From Here

Now that you know more about Google Sheets, how can you start incorporating it into your work and life?

First of all, I fully believe that the best way to learn an app is to simply start using it. If you agree, jump over to Google Drive and log in to your Google account. If you don't have one, you can create one for free.

Once you're on Drive, you can click on New and choose to create a new Sheet easily. Start typing data into the spreadsheet, and I think you'll quickly see that a spreadsheet can be a great way to log and organize data.

New Google Sheets
Create a new Google Sheet from the Drive homepage by clicking New > Google Sheets > Blank spreadsheet.

Another option is to create a new spreadsheet based on a free template that can help you see the usefulness of Google Sheets. A template has many pre-built formulas and designs that help you add your own data for ease of use. Check out the tutorial below for a round-up of templates ranging from budgeting to workout tracking to invoicing.

Google's Get Started with Sheets guide is a great place to get Google Sheets help as well, since it features some easy tips on migrating your existing spreadsheets over to the Sheets platform.

Recap & Keep Learning

This article helped you get started with Google Sheets, a browser-first spreadsheet tool that you can use for a variety of purposes. I use multiple spreadsheet apps and Sheets has a place in my regular workflow to track and work with data.

There's plenty to learn about Google Sheets. Make sure to jump over to any of the tutorials below if you want to keep learning more:

How did you get started with Google Sheets? Are you planning on trying it out after this tutorial if you haven't already? Let me know in the comments section below if there's something you want to learn more about.

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