Wednesday, January 16, 2013

13 Google Groups Tips for 2013: Part 2 of 3

Google Groups is a powerful, flexible tool that can be used to amplify your organization's ability to communicate both internally and externally.  This is Part 2 of 3 covering 13 tips for getting the most out of Google Groups.

Part 1 covered Google Groups basics, Google Groups membership concepts, using group roles and permissions, archiving messages that are sent to the group, and moderating messages sent to a group.

Tip #6: Organize Messages With Topics, Categories, and Tags

Google Groups allows you to set up an organizational hierarchy for messages so that users can focus their discussions on specific conversations.

The first level of organization is the concept of Topics.  A topic is a group of messages that are closely related, like a series of emails that are passed back and forth, responded to, etc.  An example would be if one member were to ask a question of the group; this would start a new Topic.  As group members reply, their responses are associated with the new Topic.

The second level of organization is the concept of Categories.  A Category is a group of related conversations (topics).  While topics are created by users submitting new messages to the group, Categories are defined for the group by the group's management.

The third level of organization is the concept of Category Groups.  Category Groups are a mechanism for organizing groups of Categories.  Category Groups, like Categories, are defined by the group's management.

Here's an example.  Suppose an organization (e.g., a Google Apps domain) was set up for a local car club.  The car club could use Google Groups to allow their members to interact with each-other.  To facilitate conversation, Category Groups could be set up for imported cars and another for domestic cars.  Categories within those groups could correspond to particular car manufacturers or even car models.  Users would select a Category relating to the question or thought they're communicating; when they submit a new message to the group, that new message would create a new Topic.

An additional organization mechanism provided by Google Groups is the concept of Tags.  A Tag is a word that relates to a message.  Users add Tags to their message to help describe the core concepts of the message.  A message can have multiple Tags.  The group's management can require that all messages must have at least one Tag; they can also supply sample Tags.

So, to expand on the above example, a user could submit a new message asking for help selecting new tires for their car.  They could use the Tag "tires" with their message.  Other users could quickly see from the Tags that the message is about tires.  Moreover, somebody who is looking for advice on tires could search for "tires" and they would find all of the messages in the group that relate to tires.

Tip #7: Customize Group Email Messages

Google Groups allows you to customize several email-related settings.  By customizing the way email messages are sent to a group, you can make it easier to interact with the group and make it more obvious that email messages that members receive are from the group.

Google Groups Email Options
Google Groups Email Options
Some of these settings include an email subject prefix (such as '[MyGroup']), custom footer text that's placed in the bottom of every email sent to the members of the group and various pieces of text (instructions on how to post and how to unsubscribe, a link to the group's web page, etc.).  Settings also include where message replies should be sent (e.g., to the entire group, to the author of the message being replied to, to the managers of the group, or allow the response author to choose), maximum message size, and whether or not to send bounce notifications to message authors.

Tip #8: Synchronize Group Membership With Directories

Google Group membership can be maintained automatically by synchronizing the group with an organization's directory system, such as Microsoft Active Directory or OpenLDAP.  Google provides a free tool to perform this synchronization called the Google Apps Directory Sync, or GADS for short.

GADS is frequently used to provision and synchronize user accounts between a directory and a Google Apps domain; however, it can also be used to create groups and synchronize group membership with Distribution Lists (Microsoft Active Directory) or LDAP Groups (LDAP).  Also, GADS can be used to run a query against the directory service and synchronize the results as group members.

So, suppose that an organization -- a university -- has a directory with a group (or distribution list) for students called "all_students."  GADS can create an all_students group in Google Groups for the organization and synchronize membership in the directory's all_students list with the all_students Google Group.  Once this is done, it's possible to send a message to the all_students group in Google Groups and have that message distributed to all of the students in the organization.  Furthermore, if a student were to "accidentally" unsubscribe to the mandatory all_students list, the next time GADS ran, that student would automatically be synchronized right back into the group.

Another example could be an "information_technology" group.  This group could be maintained in the organization's directory and synchronized with an "information_technology" Google Group.  Membership in the information_technology group could be manually maintained by the Information Technology department, the Human Resources department, or even automatically maintained by a program that would query the organization's HR database and populate the information_technology group in the directory.  GADS would then synchronize the information_technology group from the directory out to the organization's information_technology Google Group.  As a result, members of the Information Technology department could easily send a message to the rest of their department by posting a message to the department's information_technology Google Group.

The organization could take this a step further and configure printers that are located in the Information Technology department so that only members of the information_technology group (in the organization's directory) could print to them.  The organization could integrate their server room's door lock / access control system so that members of the information_technology group (again, from the directory) would automatically receive access to the server room.

The organization could go further still and configure resources such as Google Docs, Google Spreadsheets, Google Presentations, Google Sites, or even arbitrary files stored in Google Drive so that they're accessible by members of the organization's information_technology Google Group.

GADS can also run queries against the organization's directory and synchronize the results of those queries with Google Groups.  For example, suppose the organization wanted to set up an "administrative_directors" mailing list.  Suppose, further, that they used the CLASS attribute in their directory to organize staff, faculty, students, and alumni and that the TITLE attribute for directors followed a pattern like "Director Of  (whatever)".  A query against the directory for users with the CLASS of "staff" and TITLE starting with "Director of" would return the list of all of the administrative directors.  An LDAP query for this would look like this:
(&(CLASS="staff")(TITLE="Director of *"))
The results could then be synchronized with the organization's "administrative_directors" Google Group.  Like with the "information_technology" group, mail messages could be sent to all of the directors, resources could be shared, etc., automatically when GADS is next run.

With this infrastructure in place, adding a member to the information_technology group (either manually in the organization's directory, through a query against the directory, or "automagically" through some custom integration) could automatically add them to the Information Technology department's mailing list, provide access to department-specific documentation and electronic resources, and even provide physical access through an appropriately configured door access control system.

Tip #9: Watch the Group's Bounce Information

When a Google Group is used as a mailing list, it's often helpful to see how many accounts (and which ones!) are no longer accepting email from the group.  While this is sometimes handy for groups with open enrollment, it's often very useful when group membership is based on a query from an information system.

For example, consider an organization that uses Google Groups to distribute one-off messages to collections of previous customers from their database, such as all those users who bought a particular product during a specific time frame.  The person sending the message would query the database for the list of email addresses, direct-add them to the group, send the message to the group, then delete the group.  If a customer has changed email addresses and the address in the system no longer works, the sender will think they've successfully communicated with the customer but the customer never received the message.

If a particular email address keeps bouncing messages, at some point it becomes helpful to deactivate the email address that's bouncing.

Part 3 of this series will cover several final tips to help you and your organization get the most out of Google Groups!

-- Wes Dean, a Google Apps Certified Deployment Specialist and a Google Apps Trusted Tester, is Principal of KDA Web Technologies, a Google Apps Authorized Reseller. To learn how Wes and KDA Web Technologies can help you, go to