Get started using Google Drive for document sharing

Sending file attachments through email is so 1999. Make the switch to share documents using Google Drive and reap the benefits.

As a system administrator living in the year 2012, I still occasionally see issues whereby a user reports problems trying to send a large attachment through email; generally a document they've created. Maybe there is a file size limitation on our side, on the recipient's server, or the ISP in question, or it could just be that the attachment vanished with no clue as to the problem (Quarantined as junk email? Nuked as a virus? The list of guesses can go on).

Email was never designed to be a file transferal - much less a storage - solution, but it's understandable that for some dinosaurs old habits die hard. Nevertheless, the drawbacks of emailing files are notorious. If you're actively working on a document which you then mail to a recipient, the file is going to become outdated right away.

Emailing the file back and forth as multiple people make changes just makes things even more confusing, and now you've got multiple copies of the same document taking up storage on different email servers. Even with static unchanging files you'll have duplicates: the file you emailed, and the same file which is quite likely sitting on your hard drive.

A better way

Google offers a better way to share documents using Drive. You don't actually send people the files; you upload these objects to your online Drive repository (on Google's cloud servers), and then send the recipients a link to open the file from there (this works with folders too). You can easily manage how you want these recipients to access the item(s).

Want them to be able to update a document? It's easy to do that, too. For security reasons they will need to have a Google account set up to do this, so this is something to be aware of in advance. There's nothing special to do to set up Drive; it's available by default for Google users. Right now Google provides 5GB of free storage for each user, and you can upload a file up to 10GB in size (assuming you had that extra storage available; Google can sell you more space) which could then be shared with others. That's huge progress from worrying about whether your 12MB Word document will make it past email size restrictions!

Note the following solution may not be appropriate for all users and companies. Depending on security policies that apply to you or your users (if you're an admin), you may not want to introduce this concept in your organization as it involves storing files outside your company's servers - even temporarily. You should always check with your IT department first in matters like these.

I just want to send someone a file. How do I do it?

First, access or log into your Google account and click "Drive" in the horizontal toolbar near the top of the screen:

Figure A

First you have to upload a file to send. In the example I'll work with I have chosen a Mark Twain's "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" (a classic work on which the copyright has expired, rendering the content public domain) in text format. However, you could also send other file formats or Google Documents. Note that in order for recipients to actually edit these files they must be Google documents, spreadsheets, presentations or drawings. See below for more information.

You can simply drag and drop the item, and you will see it upload:

Figure B

Once the upload has completed, close the box using the "X":

Figure C

You will then see your file in your Drive storage. If you don't see it hit F5 to refresh the browser:

Figure D

As soon as you check the file, a mini toolbar will appear near the top of the screen:

Figure E

The toolbar has buttons which will allow you to share, organize (move), or preview the item (if applicable). You can also click the "More" button to display the following options:

Figure F

To send the file, choose "Share" either from the toolbar or the "More" menu. A window will appear which displays the URL of the file and allows you to control settings:

Figure G

By default the file will be Private meaning only the person(s) you send it to can access it and they will need a Google account to log in and view it. In this situation, even someone else with that link won't be able to pull it up since the document is shared to the user's email address and requires authentication.

If you want to adjust the access level (skip this step if "Private" is what you want), click that "Change" hyperlink to the right of "Private - Only the people listed below can access":

Figure H

If you want the file to be accessible by anyone on the internet or anyone with the link, choose the appropriate option. They will not be required to sign into Google's systems. Proceed with caution.

Click Save to confirm the setting. You'll return to the prior screen:

Figure I

Now you can enter your recipient(s). You can enter people or groups from your Gmail contacts or enter their email address(es) directly.

Once you have entered the recipient(s) you will return to these options:

Figure J

Click "Can edit" to choose the access the recipient(s) will have: they can edit, comment or view. Note that Google states "edit" only applies to Google documents, spreadsheets, presentations and drawings and "comment" is for Google documents and presentations.

You can click "Add message" to customize what you want to tell the recipient(s). You can check off the option to send a copy to yourself as well, or uncheck the option to "Notify people via email" if you want to just send them the link separately.

Click "Share and save."

If you left the default "Notify people via email" option checked, the recipient(s) will get an email that appears as follows:

Figure K

What's really cool about this process is that as soon as you share the file with a recipient it will automatically appear in their own Google Drive. I tested it out and it was instantaneous.

Once the recipient clicks the link (or opens the item from their Drive) the file will open in Google Drive Viewer (note, it will state in the upper right of the document if other people are viewing the item):

Figure L

To download the file, they can click File, then choose Download (or press Ctrl-S) as shown:

Figure M

They will get the standard file download dialogue and can choose where to save the object. Note that the Google Drive Viewer does not permit access to change a file even if the "Can Edit" setting was applied.

What if I want them to be able to edit a file?

Even though the example above involves a text file, recipients can't edit it since it will open in Google Drive Viewer. It's not in Google Doc format, you see. Other users can only edit Google documents, spreadsheets, presentations and drawings; you'll need to convert files into the Google Docs format to make them editable, and then share them with others. When they open the file they will be able to edit it without having to perform a conversion.

Google states you can convert the following file types:

Figure N

There are also certain file size specifications (screenshot provided by Google):

Figure O

To convert the item (assuming it meets the criteria), check it and then choose the "More" button from the toolbar:

Figure P

Choose "Open With" and then "Google Docs." The file will open:

Figure Q

You don't need to do anything further here; the file will be saved automatically and appears in your Google Drive. Close this tab:

Figure R

You will see a new Google Doc right under the original one. You can tell the new file is a Google Document since it has an icon to the left of it.

Now you can send someone your new Google document the same way as outlined above using the Share function. When they open it, it will open in Google Docs and they can start editing it right away if you've given them the necessary access rights.

Can I set up Drive so all uploaded files are automatically converted to Google Docs format?

Sure! Click the icon to the right of your Drive window and choose the Settings item.

Figure S

Choose "Upload Settings" then "Convert uploaded files to Google Docs format." Now the conversion will happen automatically so long as file sizes are allowed.

How are changes synchronized when different people edit a file?

As Google explains it, "if a file owner or editor modifies a file, changes sync to all collaborators' Google Drives." This means no sharing back and forth or worrying about other people having outdated copies of an item. When you can collaborate on Google documents with other users you will see one another's changes in real-time format.

How many people can share a file?

Google states:

  • A single Google doc, file, or folder can only be shared with 200 people including viewers, commenters, and editor (doesn't apply to public items).
  • Only 50 people can edit and view a document, spreadsheet, presentation, or drawing at the same time. Additional viewers will still be able to preview the item, but they won't be able to edit it, and they won't be visible to others working on the item.
  • Up to 10 people can edit and view a presentation or a document at the same time in the older version of Google documents.

What if I want to revoke access to the file? Should I delete it?

No, you don't need to delete the file from Drive to revoke access. Simply check the file and then click "Share":

Figure T

In the example above, I gave Mike access to the file so he can edit it. To remove his access completely I would click the "X" to the right of "Can edit" and then click "Save Changes" followed by "Done." Now if Mike tries to access the file using the link he previously received he'll get a box as follows:

Figure U

What if I want to restrict someone's access to a file from Edit to View, or vice versa?

Follow the above steps for revoking access to a file, but instead of using the "X" to remove the user's access you'll need to click "Can edit" and then set this to "Can view" (or do the opposite if you're upgrading their access). Make sure to save the setting.

What if I delete the file from Google Drive? Can I upload it again so other users can access it as before?

If you delete the file it will be gone from your Drive as well as that of other users who have previously held access to it. You can get it out of your Trash or upload the file again, but if you choose the latter option you'll need to reshare it all over again.

What if I want to replace the file in Drive with another version I worked on locally, such as in Microsoft Word?

If you upload the newer version of the file it will appear alongside the older version in Drive; it will not overwrite it. Therefore, you'll need to remove the older file and share the newer file as previously shown if you want others to access it and see your changes.

How do I check the status of a file that has been worked on by multiple users?

You can view these details in your Drive window; it will show you the status of a file including when it was last modified and by whom (if someone besides yourself last saved it):

Figure V

How do I check my Google Drive settings, or see how much space I have left?

Click the gear icon to the right of your Drive window and choose the Settings item.

Figure W

Your Settings window will appear. Note the Storage section which gives the relevant details:

Figure X

More space can be purchased for $2.49/month for 25GB, $4.99/month for 100GB and other options all the way to $799.99/month for 16TB. Click here for the full menu.

How can I ensure my files are secure? Will Google snoop on my documents?

The Google privacy policy is ambiguous about Google Drive. They have a page titled "Privacy and Security in Google Drive" which is really more of a set of guidelines as to how to keep your Drive contents secure from other people. 2-step verification is a great idea to improve security if you don't mind an extra step to log into your Google Account; click here for details.

As far as Google snooping, when storing your data on someone else's servers there is always a legitimate concern about that data falling into the wrong hands. This concern applies to storing data on internal servers as well, so I think safeguards across the board are always appropriate; requiring authentication, ensuring secure connections are used and working from a principle of providing the minimum access needed.

I can't guarantee nobody will snoop on a file you upload to Drive - Google itself may loudly proclaim as much with Santa Claus bearing witness to their veracity, but there's still no 100% proof positive it can't ever happen. A cautious approach is always the best. I recommend not uploading critical information which, if leaked, would adversely impact your company or your reputation. This is exactly the same strategy I suggest for email, snail mail, faxes or phone calls you're not sure are private.

The only truly foolproof way to ensure a secret remains a secret is to never tell anyone, but obviously that defeats the purpose of sharing necessary information with involved parties. If you're concerned about keeping sensitive files on Google's systems but decide it's worth the risk on a temporary basis, you can always remove a document from your Drive folder once the recipient has confirmed they downloaded it successfully.

InformationWeek Security has a good article on this topic from April, 2012 which basically states you still own your files when they're stored on Drive and all online file storage providers present similar policies and risks.


Hopefully these tips will get you speeding along sharing information with Google Drive. You can download the related application to your PC or Mac to make it even easier to use. This program allows you to store files in a local folder on your system which is then synchronized with your Google Drive account. There are apps for Android, iPhone and the iPad as well.

I always liked mystery stories whereby the narrator reveals he was the criminal all along. And so, while sending attachments through email doesn't necessarily constitute a crime, I confess I've been guilty of this practice as well. I'm sure my editor will be happy to see me start sharing my article submissions the newfangled way now.

For more information about or assistance with Google Drive, here is Google's full help page which includes troubleshooting tips.

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