In tech, change is constant. We update documents, modify slides, and revise spreadsheets. And with Google Docs, it's easy to allow other people to edit with us.
However, document edits may have mixed impact. An edit might correct a fact, improve clarity, or simplify language. But an edit might also introduce an error, cause confusion, or add unnecessary words. It helps to identify which person made an edit — either to thank them or discuss concerns.
Sometimes, we want to "undo" edits and return to an earlier version of a document. Ideally, we could view the entire history of a document — from start to finish — like a complete "replay" of a document from beginning to end. (Etherpad, a product that Google acquired in 2009, offered exactly this for multi-user text documents. An open-source version lives on.)
Google offers at least four tools in Google Apps to track document changes and updates.
1. Docs, Sheets, and Slides: Revision history
Google automatically stores versions of Docs, Sheets, and Slides as you edit documents. The versions save automatically — there's nothing you need to do to save a version.
To see these versions, choose File | Revision history. You'll see a list of older versions of the document to the right of your current document. Select any of these versions to see the document as it existed at the date and time listed: differences between the earlier version and current version will be highlighted on the screen. Choose Restore this version (Figure A) to return the document to the earlier version.
View or restore earlier versions of a Google Doc, Sheet, or Slide.
2. Google Drive: Activity stream
Overall file activity
The overall Activity stream shows recent modifications to your Google Drive files. For example, the list shows files recently created, modified, or shared.
To see your overall Activity stream, open your browser to Google Drive at drive.google.com. Then, select the Details and activity info box (which displays as an "i" in a circle in the top right corner, as shown in Figure B). Recent file activity displays to the right of your files.
Individual file activity
To see the activity stream for a file, select a file from your Google Drive list by clicking the box to the left of a filename. A checkmark will appear in the box (Figure B). You'll see a list of major edits and sharing activity over the history of the document.
View recent activity for all your files — or a specific file — with the Activity stream in Google Drive.
3. Google Sites Page: Compare versions
With Google Sites, you can compare any two versions of a Google Sites Page you can edit. This can be very handy if you use Sites as a project management tool. Simply follow these steps:
- To view prior versions of a Google Site Page, login to your site, and navigate to your desired Page
- Select the sprocket (cog wheel) menu in the upper right corner, then choose Revision History (Figure C-a)
- The Versions box allows you to select the major prior versions of the Page (e.g., Version 3, Version 2, etc., as shown in Figure C-b)
- While viewing a version, choose Compare two versions (Figure C-c) to compare any two version of the Page
View prior versions of a Google Sites Page, or compare any two earlier versions.
4. Google Docs Add-ons: Track Changes
Google Docs, by default, saves your revision history. Track Changes goes beyond this to display specific edits, with the document owner able to access or reject individual edits. Added text displays in green, and deleted text displays in red.
For the system to work, you and your collaborators need to install the Track Changes Add-on in Google Docs. To do this, open a Google Doc, select Add-ons from the menu system, choose Get add-ons, then select Track Changes from the listed Add-ons. You'll need to approve document access permissions.
The free version of Track Changes shows edits to the right of a Google Doc. A paid version — which costs $60 per user, per year — shows modifications in the document (Figure D). The paid version also displays and tracks editor names.
A Google Doc Add-on, Track Changes from Letter Feed, allows the document owner to accept or reject specific document modifications.
For more complex document version control, there are at least two excellent web-based tools available: Penflip and Draft. These both offer versioning features that Google Docs natively lacks. With Penflip and Draft, you choose when to save a major version of your document. Editing works much more like a true version control system: edits are made to a collaborator's copy of your document. You choose to accept — or reject — the edits into your master document.
Hopefully, Google and other vendors will continue to expand and add more powerful version control capabilities to Google Apps. In the meantime, what web-based editing and version control tools do you use for documents? Share your experience in the discussion thread below.
Andy Wolber helps people understand and leverage technology for social impact. He resides in Ann Arbor, MI with his wife, Liz, and daughter, Katie.