Google provides a powerful suite of web applications ranging from email and calendar to documents, chat and sites [and so much more]. For web professionals, the typical “@gmail.com” just won’t do. Thankfully, Google offers a professional version (called Google Apps) for professionals, educators, non-profits and government.
The Google Apps Standard version is the version we’ll walk through setting up and customizing to use the power of Google with our own branding. We’ll be setting up our custom domain, branding and checking out the advantages of getting yourself setup with Google Apps.
Google Apps is essentially the same services as the traditional Google services most of you are already familiar with. The advantage of it, however, is the additional advanced features and customization capabilities as well as better support, uptime reliability and storage. Some of these additional features come at a price though. You’ll pay $50 per user account if you want guaranteed uptime, support, better security and increased storage.
For many of us, Gmail and the other standard applications Google offers has been more than stable enough so I’ll only demonstrate setting up the Standard version of Google Apps, which is 100% FREE.
The Standard Edition is limited to 50 additional user accounts. If you plan on providing accounts for users and will exceed this, you’ll need to sign up for the Premier Edition.
Your Domain and Sign Up
The primary advantage to setting up Google Apps Standard edition for many of you, will be the custom domain name and ability to create additional users within your domain. If you’ve already registered a domain name of your liking, head over to the sign up for Google Apps [Standard]. If you haven’t registered a domain yet, you can do so via the signup form.
Fill out your administrator and organization information. Don’t worry, your organization can be a one man (or woman) team.
Next, you’ll create an administrator account and accept the terms and conditions (only if you agree to them!).
Verify Your Domain
You’ll need to verify that you own the domain you’ve signed up to use. You can do this by changing a CNAME record with your domain host or by uploading an HTML file. I always use the CNAME method but if you’re not familiar as to how that is done, uploading an HTML file will be easier for you.
I’ll be selecting the CNAME method for no other reason than I prefer that there isn’t a “random” HTML file sitting in my public web space.
Here I’ve added the CNAME record and verified the record exists via the link shown in the previous screenshot.
Once you’ve completed these steps, you’ll be asked if you want to go through the setup guide. This is new to me but you may find it useful. I’ll demonstrate activating the primary services and customizing them for a unique URL.
If you aren’t comfortable with editing CNAME or MX records, contact your web host with the necessary information (maybe including a link to this How-To) and they should be able to set things up for you.
Activate Your Services
The page you should see at this point is your Google Apps Dashboard. From here you can manage your domain, users, settings, etc.
If any of the services you would like to use aren’t already activated, go ahead and activate them. In this case, Email is currently not active so I’ll turn that on by clicking the “Activate email” link. The reason Email isn’t already active is because you’ll need to change the Mail Exchange records with your domain host. Mail Exchange (MX) records determine your email routing.
Please note that if you already have email setup through your domain, this will effect it. Once setup, you’re email will be accessible via your Google Apps account.Farther down the page you’ll see a list of MX Server addresses and their related priority. This is the information we’ll need to use when editing our MX records with our domain host. Here I’ve entered the three MX records for the 10, 20 and 30 priority levels (you don’t need more than that — my host actually deletes them).
Once you’ve completed those steps, Google will check your MX records which could take up to 48 hours (usually finishes in less than one hour for me) and Email will be activated.
DNS and MX record changes can take time to take effect. Try to be patient and give Google Apps a little time to activate your services.
Customize Your URLs
You may have noticed you’re given some relatively ugly standard URLs for your services. These are not user friendly and you won’t want to memorize these or type them very often. So we’ll go ahead and customize them to our liking.
Start by clicking the title of the service you would like to customize the URL for. You’ll be taken to that service’s settings page where you’ll be able to customize its URL (among other settings).
Click “Change URL” and enter the custom subdomain you would like to use. For this example, I’ll use “cal.xmdsys.com” as it’s short and easy. Continue to the next step where you’ll be given information on changing the necessary CNAME record with your web host. This follows the same steps as used before.
To speed up this process, you can enter all of the CNAME records you plan on using ahead of time then change the settings within Google Apps.
Now you’ll be able to access all these services via your custom URL with the power of Google behind you! (The email service will display its custom URL once Google has finished activating it.)
Whether you plan on providing accounts for others on your domain or not, you may want to personalize your account even further. Others may not see this but it does add to your professionalism if they do, and let’s face it — customizing our accounts with our personal branding is actually kinda fun (maybe just me?).
Visit the Domain settings page and click the Appearance tab. From here you can upload a custom logo and customize the sign-in box colors. It’s not much, but every little bit counts.I’ve uploaded a rather bland, basic logo for demonstration purposes. This is the logo that will be displayed in place of the Google logo in your (and your users) email, documents, sites and calendar accounts.
If you aren’t familiar with CNAME and MX records or how to change those with your domain host, this might be a little bit of a challenge. Don’t let it scare you away though, your hosting provider should be able to help you get this all setup.
For those of you involved in organizations larger than one or two people, Google Apps can be a real life-saver. You get the power of familiar services like Gmail with professional URLs specific to your organization and a touch of branding. The additional features and flexibility alone are worth the time needed to set this up.
If you’re a one man team, this might still be a great move to make over the traditional Gmail service and other standard Google services. When I give people my custom email address, I get noticeably different reactions as it appears much more professional. However, Gmail is my preferred email service so the combination of customizability and the power of Google, this is a must-have for me.
The last point I’d like to make about Google Apps is for those of you who run small businesses. As a web developer, I’ve had many clients who want a self-hosted email solution. It takes a lot of convincing but those who I’ve convinced to make the switch to Google Apps have thanked me time and time again. They’ve never been happier and they no longer worry about uptime or other problems that come with self-hosted solutions.
I’d like to hear some feedback from you guys and what solutions, similar to this, you use. Leave a comment below with your input or if you have any questions!