40+ Tips to Get the Most Out of Web Apps

There’s so many things you can do from your browser, you could get by quite nicely without any other native apps. The internet is full of amazing web apps, ranging from powerful tools for enterprises to little tools that do one thing great.

While the web apps and sites we love are powered by servers, usually running Linux with Apache, MySQL, and more, our browsers feel more like the “operating system” on which web apps run. We’ve gathered the best tips we can find to help you get the most out of web apps, both from the apps themselves and the browsers you use to access them.

Accounts

1. Make sure you’ve got the most important online accounts

You’ve likely already got way too many online accounts. Most of us do. But if you’re trying to help someone get started using web apps, or want to streamline your own web app workflow, then having the right accounts can be a big time saver.

Today, many apps let you sign up for a new account using your Twitter or Facebook account, and many others work with your Google account. Even if you don’t use Twitter or Facebook, you could always signup for a new account and just use it for quick authentication. That one quick signup can save you a ton of time signing up for new accounts with other apps.

You could signup manually, but 1-click is so much easier

2. Keep your email private

Alas, everything doesn’t have a 1-click signup button. Your email address is still you passport to the internet, your basic online ID. You don’t want to share it too much.

There’s a number of ways to keep your email more private. You can use an alias email with Yahoo or Hotmail, or add a period in your Gmail password, to give you different emails that all come to your inbox. Here’s some more tips on keeping your email more secure.

3. Get a unique online identity

Even if more and more sites are using your real name on your profile, your online handle can be an important part of your personal branding. From your Twitter @name to your email address, if you can use the same name everywhere, it’s much easier. Tools like Knowem can check hundreds of apps at once and see if the name you want is available. It’s a great way to create your own online identity that your friends will easily recognize across the web.

4. Avatars are important

Ever noticed your picture beside your comments here at AppStorm and on other sites across the net? Many web apps and standard sites automatically add your avatar from your email address using Gravatar. You’ve likely added a Gravatar image via WordPress before, but if not, you can add one or change your existing one from a Gravatar account. You can even create a full profile page on Gravatar as a quick business-card site.

Let the world know who you are with Gravatar

Some sites, and even native apps like Sparrow Mail, are using Facebook now for avatars, so you might want to make sure you’re ok with your Facebook profile picture appearing across the web, too!

5. Share all your accounts easily

It’s not enough to update your social networks and blogs. You’ll need a way to share them. One of the best ways is just to make a quick and simple online profile page. You can do this with Gravatar, killing two birds with one stone, or with dozens of other services. Most of these make it much easier than keeping your blog’s about page updated, and often give you a short URL or even a QR code to share. It just makes things easier. Here’s our roundup of some of the best apps to make a quick profile page.

Security

6. Get serious about passwords

Passwords are an irritating part of using web apps. They’re important, sure, but once you’ve got dozens of apps you use, keeping up with all of the passwords can be a serious problem. Using the same password everywhere isn’t a good option either; if one account gets hacked, all of your accounts are potential targets. That’s why we strongly suggest using randomly generated strong passwords, and saving them in a high quality password manager like LastPass or 1Password. Both of them integrate with major browsers and let you securely store and access your passwords from any computer with an internet connection. Plus, they have mobile apps, a great boon today when you’ll likely be using your apps from multiple devices.

Most important features for a password manager: creating strong passwords and accessing them anywhere

7. Lock down your accounts

Many of us are guilty of oversharing on social networks. We’ve likely all written something on Facebook or shared a picture we regretted later. But that’s not so bad if it’s only visible to your family and friends. However, thanks to Facebook’s frequent changes, it can be very confusing to get your privacy settings the way they need to be.

Head over to Facebook’s privacy settings, and tweak yours to work the way you expect. You probably expect Twitter to be public, but you can even make your Twitter profile private too, if you want. The last thing you want is a potential employer seeing an embarrassing picture of you when they Google your name!

Yes, Facebook can still be private. Like a private park. That's open to most of the public.

8. Get rid of old apps’ access

Every time you’ve tried out a new app that needed your Facebook, Dropbox, Twitter, Google, or other online profiles, you likely didn’t even thing about how much permission you were giving it. Rather than slog through all of those apps to find where they list their external app permissions, just head over to MyPermissions.org. This nice site gives you an easy way to find the app permissions for the most popular web apps, so you can remove the ones you don’t want snooping on your data any more.

Where'd all those apps come from anyhow?

9. Use HTTPS whenever possible on private apps

HTTPS, or secure HTTP, is the standard protocol for browsing the web with SSL/TSL encryption. Sure, most of what you send through the net doesn’t really matter if it’s read. But if you don’t want others in the coffeeshop snooping on your Facebook account, or don’t want your ISP to know what you’re searching for on Google, you’re better off browsing encrypted. Your email and banking accounts, and anything else very private, should be HTTPS by default. With other apps, you might have to enable it.

You should enable HTTPS on your Facebook and Twitter accounts, and then when you want to browse Google securely, just enter https://google.com/ to get the secure version. The bit of extra time it’ll take can be worth it when privacy’s important.

Make sure your connection is secure, especially on important private sites

10. Don’t just click any random link

You already know not to click random links from banks and the IRS that crop up in your email spam folder. But nowadays, odds are you’ll see links to interesting articles (or free iPads) in Twitter and other social networks. We’re so used to just clicking shortened links, we sometimes forget that they can be hiding a malicious link behind them. When visiting short links from people you don’t know and haven’t heard of, try adding a + after the link, as this often shows info about the link on the shortener’s site instead of taking you right to the page.

One link, or 3?

Getting Things Done

11. Get less emails, pronto

When you check your email in the morning and you have 87 emails, and most of them are from apps, not people, then something’s wrong. You can weed down much of it by tweaking your web apps’ email settings. Notification Control is a handy web app with links to cut out unnecessary emails from a number of popular apps. You might still have to login to Basecamp and other pro apps yourself to trim down emails, but the minutes it takes is worth it.

12. Get Siri in your browser

Ok, ok, not quite. But Siri’s seemingly magical way of answering facts comes in part from Wolfram Alpha, the amazing web app from the folks behind Mathmetica. It’s a great online graphing calculator and CAS, but it can also tell you a ton of random facts. Important stuff, like the weight of the moon. Or how many calories a cheese the size of the moon would have. Or the more everyday stuff, like the next lunar eclipse or the time in Chicago or the stock price of AAPL over time. It can even make you a secure password. It’s the one web app you’ve got to start using.

...it's even self-aware

13. Use Google (or other search engines) better

Google’s way more powerful than most of us realize. I search individual sites by adding a “site:mysite.com” to the end of search queries all the time. From Google Advanced Search, you can find the precise things you need much quicker. It even works on Image search, a great way to find copyright-free images. If you need more power, check out Google’s search tips, where you’ll find info about Google’s currency conversion, calculator, and more.

If you can't find it here, chances are, you can't find it.

14. Sign into everything you need to access

Google now lets you stay signed into as many accounts as you need (well, it at least works with 5 in my tests). So, just sign into your main Google account, then sign into all the extra accounts, and you can jump between them from your top right menu. That’s a huge time saver if you’ve got to manage multiple personal and work accounts together, and it works with all of Google’s apps.

Now how many accounts can we have, again?

15. Get everything in one email account

We’ve all got too many email accounts, and adding them to native apps on all of your devices is a pain. The easiest way is to forward your mail to your primary email account. If you’re using Gmail, you can even add the other accounts as sending addresses, and set rules to reply to emails using those addresses. Now, you’ll get all of your mail in one place, in your browser or in apps synced with Gmail.

Gmail's really an email app that can work with any account

16. Automate your web apps

Multitasking should be possible online, but while your apps may be only separated by a browser tab, getting them to work together can be nearly impossible. Until recently, that is. ifttt is one of the net’s niftiest new tools. It lets you create automatic options that tie together your web apps, letting your Dropbox and email and Facebook and more do all kinds of amazing things. It’s like legos for web productivity.

Web apps. Tasty.

17. Keep your files synced

This one seems like a given, but it’s worth repeating. One of the best web apps you can invest your time and money into is a high quality web sync and storage service. Whether you use Dropbox (our absolute favorite), Sugarsync, Box.net, or any other service, just pick one that’ll work great for you and get your files synced. With your files online and always on all of your devices, you’ll always be able to get things done. There’s no reason to lose files in 2012.

18. Consolidate your data

We all love trying out web apps, and with so many great notes and task management and other apps out there, chances are you’ve got accounts and data on a variety of services. But that’s just asking for you to lose your important info. Figure out what you need, and try to settle on using just the services you need. One file sync app, one task management app, one notes app: you get the picture. It’s not always practical, but when you can streamline and just use the most important apps, you’ll be more productive.

19. Liberate your data

Moving to a new to-do app is easy; likely, most of your old tasks don’t matter. But you’ve shared your social life on Facebook, and Google Docs has all the essays you’ve written. That’s why you should export and save your data from time to time. You can download data from Google Apps with Google Takeout, or from Facebook by clicking the “Download my Data” link on the bottom of your Facebook settings page. Many other web apps let you export data, you’ll just have to find where to download it from in the app’s settings. Or, try out Backupify to automatically backup your web app data.

20. Share files quicker

One of the best ways I’ve made sharing files online easier is by using Cloud.app, Droplr, and similar services. These generally let you add a small app that lets you drag-and-drop files to your menubar or taskbar, and they’re quickly uploaded and a short link is copied to your clipboard. It makes sharing files a snap. If you haven’t already started using one, and you need to share small files often, it’d be a great addition to your online workflow.

Droplr's newest site lets you drag files to share them from your browser

21. Use keyboard shortcuts

One of the best productivity shortcuts on desktop and laptop computers is to use keyboard shortcuts. The standard Ctrl or Command+C/V shortcuts built into your computer’s OS are just as useful online as ever. Then, a number of the best web apps have keyboard shortcuts built-in to make you more productive. Gmail and Google Reader have some of the more well-known keyboard shortcuts, such as j and k to move between messages. Many other web apps include keyboard shortcuts, so take the time to check your favorite app’s settings or documentation to find them.

Some of the keyboard shortcuts available in Flow

22. Share documents and work together

One of the best uses of web apps is working together. Some web apps are still designed to be used just by an individual, but for the most part, they’re better when you’re working together. Whether it’s live co-editing a document in Word while you’re videochatting in Skype to nail down the details, or simply commenting on your team’s productivity suite, the web makes working together easier. With many free tools like Google Docs and Skype that work great for collaboration, there’s no reason we all can’t work together from a distance better.

Live co-editing a document in Google Docs makes for a simple collaboration environment

23. Enable extra hidden features in your apps

Sometimes, there really is more than meets the eye. Gmail famously has a number of extra features you can enable in their Labs settings, but they’re not the only ones. From little extra features to premium features you can unlock with premium upgrades, many web apps let you turn on extra features. It can make your apps more cluttered, but it can also give your web apps more power.

Gmail's insane number of extra features in Labs

Offline

24. When uncertain, write offline

We love to rely on web apps for everything, but unfortunately, internet connections and server uptime are not always what we wish it was. We’ve all spent minutes writing a comment to a team member, or just on a random blog, only to see our work disappear when the connection is lost. That’s why it’s still often a good idea to write longer amounts of text offline when possible. You can do this with your favorite native text editor, or even do this in your browser with extensions like Write Space. Or, at least, copy what you wrote before hitting submit!

25. Take your web apps offline

It’s always frustrating to find that your favorite app is down, or that your internet is down right when you needed to check something in a web app. That’s why it’s nice more and more web apps work offline. Google’s implemented offline modes for many of their apps with special extensions for Chrome. Other apps, such as Amazon’s Kindle Web Reader, uses your browser’s HTML5 storage to save books to read offline, even on a tablet like the iPad. This is something else you’ll have to check for in your favorite apps, but if they support it, it can be a handy feature to have enabled.

Kindle for the web ... offline

26. Setup web apps with your favorite desktop apps

Whether you prefer using web apps directly or would rather use them though a native app, it can always be helpful to keep your accounts synced with native apps when possible. That way, you’ll have an archive of your data, and can possibly still get work done when offline. Apps like Producteev, Wunderlist, Evernote have full native offline apps, and your mail, calendar, and contacts can sync with a variety of native apps including those likely included with your computer. Plus, this can often be the best way to use your favorite web apps on the go from a smartphone or tablet.

OS X Lion makes it easy to add your mail, calendar and contacts accounts

27. Find creative ways to stay productive offline

Even with offline web apps and native apps that sync, that still won’t always keep your workflow going when you’ve got to be offline. That’s why it’s good that many online productivity tools let you export your files. If you can save your documents, spreadsheets, and more offline, you can likely edit them in native apps on your computer when you’re offline and upload the changes. Or you could write up draft posts and edit images in native apps, ready to just add to your web app when you’re back online. With some forethought, you can stay productive using web apps even when you can’t use the web.

Browsers

28. Use the latest browser possible … or Chrome Frame

Thanks in part to Chrome’s incredibly fast development speed, version numbers on browsers are going up insanely fast. But then, the web moves fast as well, and you don’t want to be left behind. Always make sure you’re running the latest version of your browser. You can usually check for updates from your browser’s About screen. And if you’re stuck using IE 6 at work, you could always install Chrome Frame to get newer features in an archaic browser.

You're using THAT version? How yesterday!

29. Sync your browser settings

Your web apps always have the latest data, no matter where you access them. No reason your browser shouldn’t be the same. Both Google Chrome and Firefox offer first-class sync that really just works. You can get your bookmarks, saved data, extensions, and more on all of your computers. If you’re switching between a work and home computer often, that can be a real lifesaver!

Chrome and Firefox do a great job staying in sync

30. Clear your cache

I know, I know: clearing your cache shouldn’t be so important. And maybe it just makes you feel better to be able to try something to fix your broken apps. But when sites are looking odd or you’re not seeing the latest features, it might be time to clear your cache. It can also make your browser faster … or at least it seems to. Sure, it seems unscientific, but it’s one of those old standby tricks that still seems to work. You can also clear your Flash Cache if your flash sites aren’t working well or you just want to clear up legacy junk.

31. Use Incognito mode or multiple browser for multiple accounts

So, your browser has this new private browsing mode. It’s not really something most of us should usually need, but it’s really handy for a few legitimate reasons. First, if someone else wants to check their Gmail or Facebook on your computer, open a private browsing mode and you won’t have to sign out of all your accounts. That’s always handy. Or, in Chrome, since you can run an Incognito window right along a normal Chrome window, you can use it to run two accounts of the same web app at the same time. That’s something that comes in handy for me almost daily.

Secret Agents? Goodness. We've got multiple app accounts to handle.

32. Turn web apps into apps

Even if your web apps don’t have an offline mode, they still might feel more integrated into your workflow if they’re freed from your browser’s tabs. On Macs, you can make your web apps feel more like a native app with Fluid. On PCs, both Internet Explorer 9 and Chrome let you pin apps to your taskbar where they’ll run in a streamlined browser that makes the web app feel more like a native app. Either way, you can often get notifications and more through these specialized browsers, like you’d expect from a native app.

It's almost like Fluid for Windows

33. Tweak the way apps work with Greasemonkey and addons

Every web app doesn’t look quite the way you’d like, especially if you’re picky. That’s why there’s tons of browser extensions and greasemonkey scripts that can tweak your favorite sites to look the way you want. Check your browser’s extension site to find ones for the sites you like, or look up greasemonkey scripts to find what you want. Tweakability is one of the many benefits of web apps!

Twitter.com, tweaked with Feather

34. Use Autofill to speed things up

If you’ve used web forms for any length of time, you’ve likely gotten frustrated when autofill tried to fill in a form only to mess up what you’d entered. But if you take time to add your correct info to your browser’s Autofill or your password manager’s personal info tools, you can save tons of time filling out forms. Signing up for new apps and ordering stuff online doesn’t have to be that hard.

35. Use start screens to keep your best apps

Start screens have gotten popular in browsers again, starting with Chrome and spreading to all major browsers. Most of them show your most visited sites, and if you’re using web apps a lot, they’ll likely be populated with your favorite apps. But, if you take the time to tweak your start screen, you’ll make it faster and easier to get the apps you need. That’s worth taking a few seconds for.

Extras

36. Use online bookmarking for archive

Browser-based bookmarking can be very convient, and with browser sync you can even keep your bookmarks everywhere. Still, it can be tough to manage and maintain. That’s why online bookmarking is so popular. You can have a million links saved in Pinboard or any other online bookmarking app, and it’s no slower to find what you need. Often, a good way to manage it is to save the links you use the most often, such as bookmarklets and your favorite apps, in your browser’s bookmarks, then use online bookmarking for archiving sites you might want to look back at someday.

37. Discover apps with App Stores

Sometimes it’s not so easy to find a web app to do just what you want. There’s thousands of productivity web apps, but what if you need to share a CAD file or edit a vector file? We hope you can find tons of great apps to help you out here at AppStorm, but we won’t get every app covered. App Stores like Google’s Chrome Web Store can help fill in the gap,and can be a great way to discover new ways to get things done.

App Stores are still great for discovery

38. Make the web readable

We’ve all had our eyes burned by awfully designed sites cluttered with ads. No more. The web should be readable, and there’s no reason you have to read articles on awfully designed sites. We rounded up 6 ways to make reading online better, but if you want some quick tips: use Instapaper to save articles to read later, or the Readability bookmarklet to make them look better right now. It’s that easy, and that good.

Doesn't that look nicer? Oh yes it does.

39. Tweak what you see

This one’s more of a fun trick, but it can be useful if you’re wanting to take screenshots of a web app but don’t want to show your private info. Every site and web app you use is essentially HTML and CSS and Javascript, and you can tweak much of what you see on the fly. Just open the Developer Tools in Chrome or Web Inspector in Safari on the page you want to tweak. Now click the magnifying glass icon in the bottom left, select the element you want to tweak, and change the text in the bottom. You can now tweak sites to your heart’s content.

Sure, I can pretend my email is [email protected]!

40. Take screenshots in your browser

Want to show off what’s going on in your web apps without using your native OS screenshot tools? Awesome Screenshot is one of the best ways to take screenshots, and with native extensions for most major browsers, you can use it wherever you get things done. It can even capture scrolling screenshots so you can get everything on the page, not just what you’re seeing right then. Need a video instead? Screencast-O-Matic‘s an old standby that works great for simple screencasting from your browser.

Conclusion

And that, my friends, is a massive collection of ways you can make web apps work better for you, no matter what apps you love. None of them are brand new, and most aren’t highly hidden, but they’re simple ways that we get more done with web app. Plus, several of the tips were really several little tricks together. So, we’re curious: What tips do you have that have made web apps work better for you? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below!


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