A Look at Google Sites

Managing lots of information, relationships, and resources can be a challenge for any organization. While it can be easy to be overwhelmed by the variety of options on the market and their pricing there is one platform I recommend you explore, and its free: Google Sites.

I came across Google Sites while searching for solutions for managing the production of PresenTense Magazine, which entailed upward of 80 volunteers collaborating around 30 articles over the course of several months per issue. Our contributors spread from Los Angeles to Jerusalem to Budapest and everywhere in between. I needed to store items as varied as drafts of the articles themselves; spreadsheets recording who was working on what; and running blog-style thoughts from conference calls and online and in-person brainstorms. It was crucial that everyone on the team could easily access the information necessary to do their job true when working with colleagues, and perhaps even more so when working with volunteers.

Satisfying all of these specifications could be seen as a challenge. However, once the right platform of Google Sites was discovered and properly developed, managing our bountiful ecosystem of data helped enable us to convert our advantages such as geographic diversity, a multitude of ideas, and an eager crew of enthusiastic volunteers into opportunities.

Here are some benefits, tips, and drawbacks Ive discovered in Google Sites. I hope you will consider them and that they will similarly help you turn your organizational assets into opportunities.

Why use Google Sites?

Everything organized in one place.
Rather than dealing with a litany of Google Docs, you can not only store them in one place, but also use article-style pages to organize links to spreadsheets, blog pages, and file cabinets (where you can store files such as images, documents, or presentations).

Easy to learn to customize your own site.
To set up a site effectively might take a bit of practice, but it does not take knowledge of HTML. If you spend some time exploring the different template options, you can build a functional site in just a few clicks and it is easily customizable to exactly your needs.

Convinced? Heres how to use it!

Learn how to take advantage of the templates
Think about how the different templates could make sense for your use. The templates can be highly effective if you apply the right template to the right purpose. For instance, the template called List can be a to-do list or task management tool, a spreadsheet that stores contact information, or a list organizing other items stored in the site (i.e. you can link directly to article pages or file cabinets within the site). The templates each offer great flexibility so you can customize them for your purpose.

The more organized you can be, the better!
You can at any point reorganize the skeleton outline of your site (which pages are organized under which other page). You can also create a table of contents which allows users to easily jump to the page theyre looking for. Take advantage of these organizational methods to make sure everyone working on the project can find what they need, fast.

A word of caution: A few Google Sites drawbacks

Not the best tool for engagement
While Sites is a great way to store information such that it is easily accessible, in my experience it has been difficult to use it to start conversations. Perhaps the user interface is not intuitive, or requires a greater investment of time to figure out than people who are just looking for information to do their job are willing to give.

Sharing can be a little complicated
If you do not have a Google account, you have to go through the extra step of creating one. While in theory this should be an easy process, I have had some non-Gmail-users unable to find how to access Sites, and this can be a source of frustration. If your information isn’t particularly confidential, you could consider making the site public (viewable to anyone) for the duration of the project. I’ve used this approach at times and it has helped overcome this obstacle.

Whether or not you ultimately decide to use Google Sites, I do recommend that, before embarking on any new endeavor in iformation management, you take a moment to answer these questions yourself, and/or survey your coworkers on their thoughts and needs:

  • What tools do you currently use to manage your projects, and if they are not working, why not?
  • What functions are on your wish-list for information management?

Then, you can more knowledgeably find the tools that will work for you and find ways to more consciously tailor and employ them for your specific purposes. After all, at the end of the day, tools are only as effective as what we make of them!

Have you used Google Sites in your work? If so, how? What other tools have you experimented with for information management?

deborahDeborah Fishman is a network weaver interested in new opportunities to create change in the Jewish world. She was most recently Editor and Publisher of PresenTense Magazine. She blogs at hachavaya.blogspot.com.

No More Excuses: Importing Your Events into Personal Calendars

Guest post by Ellen Dietrick

The New Year is quickly approaching and with that comes the deluge of new calendars. Synagogue calendars, school calendars, board meeting schedules, and soccer schedules. Like me, you are probably used to dedicating an afternoon around this time of year to entering all of these lists of dates into your personal calendar.

Those days are over.

Set up a calendar for your organization in Google, post it to your website or blog, invite your members. One click and voila, each event on your organization’s calendar is instantly imported into their personal calendar. The events show up in a new color, so your organization’s events are easily distinguished from other entries on the user’s personal calendar. And the best part- as you add events to your organization’s calendar, they automatically show up on each individual’s personal Google calendar. You can even use it to send invitations to your events and collect RSVPs. It is all both cost free and ad free. For those that don’t use Google calendar, they can easily view events right on your website or print the calendar in any of three formats: weekly, monthly, or agenda.

Sample Google calendarTo get started on setting up the calendar for your organization, you’ll need a Google account. Then go to Google calendar and select “Add” in the “My Calendars” section. The investment of time is quite minimal. Spend a few minutes entering the events and then embed the calendar directly to your website. To try it out from a member prospective, visit a sample calendar at Kesher Jewish Community After School Program. Then just hit the at the bottom of the calendar. (You can easily remove it later.) Note that for Mac users, Google allows you to add a link to allow them to get the calendar through iCal too.

Ellen Dietrick is the new Director of Early Childhood Education at Temple Beth Shalom in Needham, MA, and is famous for her creative and practical uses of technology at her previous position at Congregation Beth Israel, in Charlottesville, VA, and through the Covenant Fellows program and the Jim Joeseph Foundation Fellowship.

Wave in Review

By Deborah Fishman

An all-volunteer magazine put together by a geographically diverse, online community of young adults 22-40, PresenTense Magazine has always been a collaborative enterprise. As such, weve made ample use of many Google products, storing and sharing articles in Docs, communicating in Chat, and organizing and tracking article progress in Sites. Yet the lack of integration has made using all these tools in concert a challenge, and we are always interested in exploring better ways to perform these tasks.

For our tenth issue, PresenTense Magazine launched the Digital Issue the first-ever print magazine to be published entirely in Google’s new tool for collaboration, Google Wave. The platform allowed us to pioneer new horizons for journalism by seeking to address a key challenge for journalists today: how to collaborate in a digital age.

Google Wave enticed us with the ability to collaborate on all aspects of the magazine production in a single package, as well as offering several new and exciting features. For instance, playback allows users to review the sequence of changes and easily restore a document to a previous version. Two modes of engaging with waves edit and reply give greater flexibility in editing documents and leaving comments for writers. Since edits and replies are updated in real time, authors and editors can interact naturally, as if in an in-person conversation. Wave also includes the ability to add images, maps, videos, and other gadgets right in the collaboration space.

It was especially fitting that we set out to explore Google Wave for our Digital Issue, focused on the Digital Age and how it is affecting young Jewish community- and identity-building today. Google Wave allowed us to take advantage of the very digital trends and technologies we were discussing, to produce content to act as the starting place for a larger conversation. We found that, while rough around the edges as a pre-Beta product, Google Wave has some real potential for online collaboration.

Ready to embark on a whole new world of Wave discovery, we soon realized that our first hurdle was getting on Wave to begin with. A collaboration tool only works when your co-collaborators also have access. Each issue of PresenTense Magazine is the product of over 70 young Jews writers, editors, advisory committee members, and art team members who work together through the creative process, from the initial brainstorming phase through the final production. Wave invites are a scarce commodity, and for 70 contributors, you need an allocation strategy. Googles arbitrary approval process further baffled our editorial team.

Even with an approved Wave account, not all writers were as eager to ride the Wave as we had hoped. The great flexibility offered by the Wave platform belies the fact that Wave is to many unintuitive. It took significant effort for many writers and editors to learn such Wave basics as how to reply to a message, causing a great deal of frustration. Even those who persevered encountered a fair share of frustrations from frequent crashes, missing features, and various other unexplained occurrences. For those accustomed to working over e-mail and chat, the lack of integration with GMail meant many participants did not notice changes until days later.

Along the way we also came across some collaboration-enhancing perks. When posting in real-time, one author and a commenter discovered they were able to have a brief exchange of ideas inside the Wave and then delete all but what they wanted to preserve for others to see. Another pair of authors were able to “meet” each other and converse when they bumped into each other on their articles section contents page.

PresenTense Magazine is generally published as a glossy, in-print magazine. One of our defining features has been our full-color photographs and artwork, skillfully laid out alongside articles and other content. Wave does offer the ability to drag-and-drop images into an article, and you can even view them as a slideshow or one at a time as full-screen images. However, inside a blip the images appear as either small icons or full-size images taking up most of the page, and it’s not possible to wrap the surrounding text around them. The unsatisfying formatting was further complicated by Googles mysterious rules governing whether and how blips are indented, depending on where exactly one clicks and whether one selects edit or reply.

PresenTense Magazine is the foundation for a vibrant community. Over the past five years, our ten in-print issues have acted as a community organizing tool, bringing together hundreds of young Jews around the world with ideas and enthusiasm about the future of Jewish innovation. However, there are challenges inherent in grassroots work with young Jews spanning time zones around the world. The geographic distances involved provide the tremendous benefit of enabling us to incorporate different perspectives and start conversations that may never occur otherwise. But it can be difficult to find appropriate online collaboration tools that have all the functionality we need. We found a lot to like on Google Wave, and we look forward to future improvements to the medium.

Deborah Fishman is the Network Animator for the PresenTense Group, engaging and empowering the PresenTense community to explore issues facing the Jewish People. As the volunteer managing editor of PresenTense Magazine, Deborah has managed hundreds of volunteer writers, editors, and visionaries.
Lisa Colton, Founder and President of Darim Online, was a member of the advisory team for Presentense Magazine’s Digital issue.

A googol uses of Google

Google is all over the place. Maybe you’ve heard a commercial for the release of the google operating system based cell phone, or maybe its your favorite search engine. For whatever the reason, e-mail, search engine, or another post on our blog you’ve probably heard of google being used for something. But did you know that google has a whole section of its website devoted to tools that are meant to help you, a nonprofit. Over the coming weeks I will be pointing out many of the individual tools that google has produced. Google for Non-Profits is just the tip of the google iceberg but it’s a great place to start. Finally for google’s “professional tools” registered non-profits are eligible for Educational version of products like google apps which means more product for the same cost – FREE. Take some time to check out google’s tools and stayed tuned on JewPoint0.org for more info.

Search Engine Optimization. Wait, What?

If you do a Google Search with the words Search Engine Optimization” youll see about 34.6 million pages on the subject. Search Engine Optimization (SEO) making sure your website has high visibility with search engines – is a hot topic these days, creating an entire industry of firms specializing in SEO. As I started writing this post I said to myself, “SEO isn’t yet the norm unless there’s an “SEO for Dummies” book published. And after a search, of course there is. (I’m not recommending the book, just using it as a cultural barometer. Also, how meta/odd is it to search for a book on searching?)

There are a few basic things you can do to make sure your synagogue/organization appears near the top of any searches. For detailed information, here’s a fantastic Guide to SEO for Non-Profits. And following is a general overview of 3 key items:

Content Still is King: Google, Yahoo! and MSN (the top 3 search engines) and other search engines send web robots throughout the Internet to index words found on the pages of websites (especially home pages!) in order to better determine the appropriateness of search terms for a particular site. You should take a look at your site and make sure the name of your organization, the location, and keywords (see below) are repeated throughout the site. Obviously, you dont want to go overboard, but, if nothing else, insure that your home page includes text describing your synagogue/organization.

Keywords: In the backend coding of your website is a list of keywords describing your site. Search engines use these key words to determine search rankings. When deciding on these keywords, put yourself in the shoes of someone who has just moved to your area and is looking for something that you provide. What terms would they use? Synagogue Chicago is obvious if you’re a synagogue in Chicago, but what other terms would people use to find you? For more info on keywords and how to choose them, click here. If you are a Darim member, contact [email protected] and we can show you what keywords are currently being used on your site.

Reciprocal links: how many other sites link to your site? Some search engines use the number of sites linking to your site as a method for ranking your site. We recommend to clients that they beef up their local links section by contacting local and national organizations to seek reciprocal links (some folks call it a link exchange). It helps both sites increase their rankings, and of course, it provides good content on your site by providing your visitors with great content and a comprehensive list of resources. For an example of how one of Darims clients used their Local Links section in order to increase both service to their members and their Google rankings, click here: http://templesholom.com/resources/. Your list doesnt have to be that extensive, but it provides a starting point for ideas.

For more information on SEO, Deborah Finn wrote a guide and published it on her blog, which is targeted specifically to the non-profit sector.

What We Can Learn From How Google Is Introducing Chrome

Google Chrome Comic

Google is introducing a new web browser, Chrome.

Knowing that people seek, access and absorb information in many different ways, they have offered many different points of entry for learning about the browser. The most important part of their campaign is how they are inviting us inside to understand the process, not just selling their product.

Through cartoons, video, and text (blogging), they are telling the story of why and how they developed a revolutionary new offering. And it’s powerful. As a user/reader/watcher you are invited inside the process and the story — and invited to become part of the story by actually using Chrome.

In addition to these storytelling offerings, Google also has produced videos to introduce you to the features of the browser – a “how to” guide.

So… What can we learn from this?

First, “how to” may be necessary but it is not sufficient. Logistics are only part of the story, and the personal connection (even to a developer in another state from another generation who is using words that sound Greek to you) is critically important to feeling engaged. American Jewish World Service has done a great job of this with their videos developed with See3 to show the real experience of real people who are involved with AJWS. Donors, volunteers, staff all have powerful and important stories to tell.

Megillat Esther, by JT Waldman
Megillat Esther, by JT Waldman

Second, visuals, and especially video, offers more momentum than plain text. While I would be hard pressed to READ the whole story, I’m delighted to watch a few minutes of video. JT Waldman transformed Megillat Esther into a comic book (it’s kosher!) which has engaged young (and old) in a text that they otherwise might not have ever studied. (BTW, he’s now working on the Tagged Tanakh project — way cool.)

There are many circumstances when we have a hard time capturing the attention of our audiences for important things. The congregational meeting, for example. Introducing a new staff person or board chair. Showing the added value of the new classrooms that are under construction to fuel the final stages of a capital campaign. Sharing the impact of participating in a mitzvah day. Orienting new families to the traditions and customs of your congregation.

What do you learn from these various approaches? How do you see it applying to you work? Got something to share? Tell us!

See below to hear the Chrome Story for yourself: