Google Calendar Brings Time, Search Together

So what’s the big deal about a free web-based calendar application? Plenty, when Google is the company putting it out. At least one analyst says that it has all of the old wow factor that we remember from older Google products, including some interesting uses for search. It also might offer some good advertising opportunities.

To hear some of the analysts talk about it, it’s the best thing to happen to scheduling since paper planners – or at least since Yahoo! put out its calendar application back in 1998. It has been rumored to exist for at least a year, but Google apparently took its time putting it together, and it shows. Google Calendar (www.google.com/calendar) was released just this month, in the company’s typical “Beta” fashion. It is receiving acclaim already for the richness of its features and how easy it is to use.

Google designed this service for “power calendar” users. By this I don’t necessarily mean the most technically savvy, though that probably helps. I mean that folks who constantly have to juggle schedules should find it particularly useful. If you have to synchronize your schedule with anyone else’s, such as kids or a spouse (or a softball team), you will find a lot to love here.

Google Calendar can be used by anyone who has a free Google account. Those are easy to get; anyone with Gmail has a Google Account. According to one analyst, you’re supposed to see a link to your calendar in the upper left corner of your screen, but I didn’t.

The calendar interface is clean and easy on the eyes. By default you view an entire week with the dates across the top and the times down the side; next to this large view is a small calendar of the current month. You can click on tables that will show you one day, one month, the next four days, and one for “Agenda,” which gives you a linear list of all of your scheduled events.

You can add an event to your calendar by clicking on the appropriate area of the calendar. A pop-up window appears in which you can add text; click the button, and presto! Your event is added to the calendar.

If you need to edit the event, that’s easy too. Click on the event, and a new screen comes up. It’s a separate web page that lets you add any details you left out (like the location or a description). You can also add guests, who you can allow to invite others and/or see the guest list (more about that later). Click on the options link, and a drop-down appears that lets you set a reminder, show yourself as available or busy, and set whether the event is “public” or “private” (again, more about that later). There’s also a section for comments about the event; Google gets a little tongue-in-cheek here if it’s empty (“Sorry, nothing to read here. Try Google News if you’re bored.”).

If you don’t like the idea of finding the right space in the calendar and then clicking on it, just click the “Quick Add” link in the upper left corner. You get a text box, and here is where Google really starts to shine. It uses text recognition to make sense of what you type in. So when I typed “Doctor’s appointment for 9 AM tomorrow,” Google knew what I meant and slotted the event into the right place.

It’s probably that same text recognition that lets Google find events in Gmail and let you slot them into your Google Calendar. This integration with Gmail should make it popular among those who already have and use the search engine’s brand of email.

Here’s a nice touch. When you add the location to your event, Google adds a “map” link right next to it that takes you to a Google Map of the area, which is great if your event is at a place you’ve never been before. (In my case, it let me know in a hurry that I’d probably have to leave earlier than I’d anticipated).

Those already using other calendars will really appreciate the import/export features. You can import events from other calendar programs, including Yahoo! Calendar and, yes, Microsoft Outlook; any calendars that use the iCal or CSV formats will work. One analyst noted that this process is trickier than it needed to be, but at least Google documents it thoroughly.

Have a tendency to forget events? Me too. Google Calendar offers you the option of being reminded of an event by email, popup window, or by a text message sent to your phone. You choose to do that in the same area that you edit events. You can get a reminder sent to you anywhere from 10 minutes to two days in advance.

If you’re the kind of “power calendar user” that Google had in mind, you’re actually juggling several calendars. I’m not as busy as some of my co-workers, but my schedule includes work, two or three not-for-profit organizations I belong to and participate in sporadically, and two very close friends whose plans directly affect mine (and vice versa). Google thought of that; it allows users to create additional calendars. You can color-code these calendars to distinguish them, and view events from as many different calendars as you like – all color-coded so you know which events belong to which calendar. If you’re a single parent with several busy kids, I can see how this would be a godsend.

All of your calendars are set to private by default, but Google offers a variety of ways for you to share your calendar information with others. You can make a calendar completely public, in which case it can be searched by anyone who has a Google calendar. Or you can share only information about when you’ll be busy and when you’ll be free, with no details. You can share you calendar with specific people – or even just parts of your calendar with specific people. As Google puts it, “For instance, you can let Aunt Jane see details about your ballet recitals but not your Lambada lessons.”

You can even share your calendar with people who aren’t Google Calendar users. As I hope you could tell from my description of adding events to the calendar, every event gets a web page associated with it. When you invite guests to an event, it becomes interactive; these guests can leave and respond to comments, sort of like Evite. You do this by clicking on the event on your calendar; when the page for the event comes up, click on “Add guests” and put their email addresses in the text box that pops up.

Another very cool way that Google allows users to share with others is through a button they’ve created. If you have a web page with events, and want to make it easy for Google Calendar users to put those events on their calendars, you can add a Google Calendar event reminder button to your site. It involves inserting some HTML that Google provides you to the web page. When a visitor to your site clicks on the button, your event details appear in the browser; they can then save these details to their Google Calendar. You need to use CGI parameters to modify the button for your event; Google’s explanation makes it look very straightforward.

As you would expect from Google, you can also put search to work in Google Calendars. You can search for particular events on your own calendars. You can use a variety of parameters, including “What,” “Who,” “Where,” “Doesn’t have” and a date range. Also, as if your own schedule wasn’t busy enough, you can search on all public calendars. There’s a box on the middle left where you can manage your calendars; it contains a text box that says “search public calendars.” This is how I found out that there were already 110 picnics scheduled on Google’s public calendars.

Gartner analyst Allen Weiner is intrigued by Google Calendar. “If it becomes successful, then it can also be the place to schedule a lot of content delivery. There’s no reason why you shouldn’t be able to go to your calendar and say 10 a.m. every morning, ‘I would like to listen to a podcast’…and you listen to it through your calendar.” He’s right, that shouldn’t be difficult; RSS feeds for each calendar are already available.

I could go one better with that. One personalized search feature lets you save searches for particular keywords, and repeat them with just a few clicks. How hard would it be for Google to let you set it up so that searches for particular keywords are run every morning at a particular time, and have the top 30 results delivered to your email inbox? (This ought to be a piece of cake if you’re a Gmail user). If you’re an SEO, wouldn’t it be wonderfully convenient for you to be able to check your rankings in the SERPs every morning like this, without having to do a thing beyond the initial setup?

Of course, this isn’t the only way that SEOs can hope to benefit from Google Calendar down the line. First of all, there’s the obvious point that it’s another application to tie in loyal Google users. Gee, did someone say “portal”? As long as you’re on the site already, you’re more likely to use all of Google’s other features, like search. If you normally just go there to search, then set up a Google Calendar, you’re more likely to hang around for a while…and become a target for ads.

Speaking of ads, while Google currently isn’t planning to add advertising to Calendar, that’s an opportunity that would be hard for it to pass up. If your children have a soccer game and some of the parents are discussing where to go for food after the game, could you blame Google for putting up ads for local kid-friendly restaurants on the page? Evite.com already does something similar.

All in all, Google Calendar is a very solid, feature-rich, well-supported release. It’s not perfect, but if this is the beta version I’m looking forward to seeing the full release. You can expect it to be different and improved, since there’s a forum for discussing improvements and a number of analysts using it (even Matt Cutts) have picked some nits. But try it out yourself; I think you’ll be impressed.

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