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Everything you need to know about Google Chat

By Matthew Guay · March 20, 2020
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G Suite is a one-stop shop for software, but for a long time, Google didn't really offer customers any kind of team communication tool. Sure, there was Hangouts in Gmail, but that was a consumer tool that only really offered IMs and video chat. Using it for any kind of group communication was chaos. Which is why many companies that pay for G Suite also pay for a messaging service, such as Slack.

Power up your Google apps with automation

Google Chat (formerly known as Google Hangouts Chat), found at chat.google.com, is Google's answer to this. It's a team messaging application, complete with rooms for teams and projects. Here's a quick guide to using it—and the best hidden tips we've found to make Chat a productive place to discuss your work and push projects forward.

Google Chat integrates with Zapier. Automatically get notifications about upcoming events, stay in the loop about team projects, and spark some water cooler chat.

Google Chat conversations

Google Chat
Google Chat brings a conversation focus to team chat

Chat is included with every paid G Suite account, so if your company's using Gmail for your company email, just head to chat.google.com to get started.

You'll see any chat rooms you've been invited to. You can reply to conversations, say something new, or directly message anyone else on the team. If they haven't logged in yet, they'll get an invite email—or if they already use Hangouts video chat, they'll get the direct message there or in Gmail.

Google Chat is organized into rooms, similar to channels in Slack. Enter one of these rooms, and you'll notice that the focus is on threads. Slack offers threads, but they're optional. Chat puts every conversation into a thread, and users can decide which conversations to subscribe to. The idea is that everyone only sees information that's relevant to them, but it might be an adjustment if you're used to a more traditional chat room.

When you want to talk to someone specific, you'll send them a direct message in a private, message-focused conversation. No threads here—these conversations work the way Hangouts always have, and for now still show up in the Gmail sidebar.

In rooms, though, the focus on conversations changes the way you chat a bit. If you want to share something new—an idea you've been thinking about, a document you just completed, a video you came across this morning—you open the chat room you want, click the New thread button on the bottom center, and post your new message. But if you just came up with the solution to a problem your team was discussing yesterday—or finally thought of a witty reply to your friend's joke from last week—you'll want to pull up the old thread and add the reply directly.

Google Chat brings conversations with the most recent threads to the bottom of your chat list. Whenever you open a room, you'll see the conversations with the most recent replies first—so if someone started a new conversation 10 minutes ago and someone else replied to a week-old conversation 5 minutes ago, you'll see them both.

Google Chat search

If you need something older, search is your friend. Click the search icon in the top of Chat—or press Alt+/ on a PC or Option+/ on a Mac—to look through your older conversations.

Searching in Google Chat

The search will check the current room first; select All rooms and direct messages on the left sidebar to look through everything. Then search for what you want—and Chat will show the full conversation for context, with a Reply button so you can jump back in and re-start the discussion.

Google Meet

Whether you're replying to an old conversation or starting a new one, sometimes text isn't enough. You might rather jump on a call. Meet video conferencing comes built into Chat. To start a call with everyone in a room, click the Meet button (the icon with a chat bubble and video camera) in any Reply or New Conversation box.

Call button in Google Chat

Or, to call just one person, open a direct message with them and click the Meet button there.

Confused about the difference between Chat, Meet, and Hangouts? Read our guide on all the Google chat and video call apps.

Share Google Docs, Sheets, Slides, and Drive files in Google Chat

Select Document from Google Drive

Google Chat is about work, so it's no surprise that it integrates with Google's other work apps. There's an ever-present Google Drive icon in the New Conversation and Reply boxes. Click it to quickly share a document—you can select recent files or search through your entire Google Drive account to find any file you need.

Or, if you already have the link to a Google Docs, Sheets, Slides, or Drive file you want to share, just paste it in the thread or reply box to instantly preview it.

Share Documents in Google Chat

The fun thing is, that's all you need to do to share a Google Docs or Drive file with others in Chat. Whenever you share a file, Google will automatically add everyone in that room with viewing and commenting permission so they can see the thing you shared. You'll never have to wait to view a document because someone forgot to turn on sharing in Google Docs again.

Find Google Docs documents with Hangouts search

It's also easy to find any documents your team is working on. Chat's search lets you look for any conversation—and then you can filter for Google Docs, Sheets, Slides, PDFs, or other files. That shows the file in question along with the conversation about it, so you'll know right where to pick up the work.

Google Chat notifications

Team chat apps are one of the best ways to talk with everyone on your team—but they're also one of the most distracting apps you could use. With conversations going on about everything all the time, it's easy to get pulled into far too many discussions and never get the actual work done.

Chat tries to calm the storm a bit in a number of ways. First, you can choose which threads to follow. Odds are, when you start a new conversation or participate in one, you'll want to get notified about it. Chat, by default, will send a push notification for every response to that thread. You can quickly unfollow any thread using the Following button at the top-right of the thread. This gives you a quick way to unfollow threads you don't need notifications for.

Unfollow any thread by clicking this button

You will also get notifications for any direct messages anyone sends you, or anytime someone mentions you in a thread.

You can make things even calmer if you want. By default, Chat will notify you on web and mobile—and will send you an email of all your notifications if you haven't opened either app in over 12 hours. If you don't want to be notified about conversations, or want to turn off all notifications, click the gear icon in the top right corner of Chat and select Settings. From here you can configure your settings.

Configure your Chat settings

Or, if one room is particularly chatty, click its menu and select Turn off notifications.

Turn off notifications

That'll let you get notifications for mentions, along with conversations from other rooms, but will keep that room from distracting you. It's a calmer approach to chat.

Google Chat hidden features

Here are the best extra features we've found in Google Chat, and how to get the most out of them.

Format Google Chat messages

If you've ever used Google Talk and Slack, you'll find both experiences combined in some ways in Google Chat. First, formatting. You can add italics and other formatting like in Google Talk and Google Docs comments.

To add italics to a Chat message, add underscores around the word or phrase like _this example_. Add bold by adding asterisks around the word or phrase, like *this*. Need to correct something and want to strike out a word? Add tildes around the word or phrase like ~this~. And if you're sharing code, add backticks around the code like `this`.

Formatting in Google Chat

Then, to add emoji to your Chat messages, type a : then start typing the name of your emoji (as you would in Slack). Hangouts will start filtering through the emoji options; when you find the one you want, press Enter to add it to your message or just type its full name and add a colon on the other end.

Adding emoji in Google Chat

Mentioning people in your message works like Google Docs comments and Slack: type an @ followed by the name of the person you want to mention. Chat will start filtering through the names of people in your company, with those in this room on the top and others you could invite on the bottom. Press Enter to select the person you want.

Tagging people in Google Chat

Sharing stuff is easy too. Paste links in a new conversation or reply box, and most of the time Chat will automatically show a preview of the image or a description of the article you shared.

Link previews in Google Chat

Ever need to edit a message? Press the arrow while typing in the New Conversation or Reply box to open the last thing you've posted and edit it.

Add bots to Google Chat rooms

Add bots to Google Chat

Google Chat isn't just for talking to people—it's also a great place to chat with your apps. They can help you book meetings, find flights, poll your team, check your calendar, request time off, and much more.

In Chat you can add bots to a specific room or you can chat with them directly on your own. There are a handful of bots already built for Chat today, including ones for GIPHY, MeisterTask, Wrike, Zenefits, Dialpad, Kayak, and more. To find bots, click the search button in the top-left corner, then click Find a bot. You can add bots to rooms, or you can chat with them directly.

Book plane tickets from Chat

These bots can be handy. Say you're planning a trip. The Kayak bot lets you ask about flights for an upcoming trip in real language, and it mostly gets things right. You can browse through the offerings, then click a flight that looks good and book it from Kayak's site.

Google's own Meet bot does something similar for meetings. You can ask it to check your Google Calendar or book a meeting with someone else on your team.

Using the Meet bot in Google Chat

Other bots, like the GIPHY one to find GIFs or the Polly poll bot, are better in rooms. To add a bot to a room, type @ followed by the bot's name in a new conversation or reply. The bot will then typically give you a quick description of how to use it, then will be ready whenever your team wants to mention it.

Say you want to poll your team about what to eat for lunch. Add the Polly bot to your room, then mention it in a conversation, and it'll turn your message into a poll. Or, liven things up with a GIF by replying @giphy fireworks.

Using Giphy in Chat

Zapier offers Google Chat integrations, allowing you to connect thousands of apps to your Chat rooms without any code.

Manage Google Chat rooms

Add new rooms to Chat

You'll likely start using Google Chat when a colleague or manager invites you to a new Chat room, perhaps for a new project or to keep track of your team's work.

Google Chat is unique in that its rooms are private—you have to be invited to them in order to start chatting. That keeps things focused, though it also might mean you need to ask others to add you to rooms when you join a project.

Or, if you're the one starting a project, you can make your own room. Click the Find people, rooms, bots bar in the top-left corner of Chat, select Create Room, then type in the name of your new room.

Add people to Chat room

Chat will then ask you to add people to your new room. Select anyone you want—or type their name or email to search through the list. You can add bots at the same time, to bring your favorite apps into the conversation, too.

Ever need to add more people? Just mention them in a chat message and Chat will offer to invite them to the room.

Over time you will probably end up in too many rooms. This isn't Hotel California—you can leave anytime you like. Click the channel's header menu, then, select Leave.

Leave a room in Google Chat

If you ever want to come back, you'll find it in the Browse Rooms menu, where you can join in again without needing a new invite.

You can also make a list of your favorite rooms. Click the Star button in a Hangout Chat room's menu, and it'll show up on the top of your room list in the sidebar. That keeps your most important rooms near the top, no matter how many rooms you're in.

Navigate Google Chat with keyboard shortcuts

One of Google Chat's best features are its wide range of keyboard shortcuts. Much like how you can navigate your Gmail inbox and organize email without ever touching a mouse, you can do the same with your chat conversations in Google Chat.

Say you're looking at a chat room and haven't clicked anything yet. Press the arrow on your keyboard to go to previous conversations, or the arrow to see newer conversations. Find something interesting? Press the arrow or Enter to select that conversation, then use arrows to go up and down through the conversation.

Google Chat combines messages sent around the same time to save space. If you want to see them, just click down until you come to a numbered message and press Enter to expand all the messages.

Replying is easy, too. If you've selected a conversation or a message inside a conversation, press your r key and start typing to add a new reply, then press Enter to send it. Make a mistake? Press the arrow anytime to edit your last message in a conversation. Or, to start a new conversation, select a recent conversation and press Tab a few times until the New Conversation button is selected.

Done in this conversation and want to switch rooms? Press the arrow to switch to the sidebar, then press your up and down arrows to switch between chat rooms and direct messages, and the arrow or Enter key to select that room. Pretty quickly, you'll get used to using arrows to move around Google Chat rooms and conversations naturally without ever needing your mouse.

Or, for a quicker way to switch rooms: Press Ctrl+K on a PC or CMD+K on a Mac to open the Find people, rooms, bots menu, and type in the room or person you want to chat with. That's the quickest way to jump into a conversation.

Need to find stuff? Alt+/ on a PC or Option+/ on a Mac opens Chat's search where you can look through chat conversations, documents, files, and more.

Find more Google Chat keyboard shortcuts in Google's documentation.

Do more with Google Chat using automation

Google Chat integrates with Zapier, so you can connect it to your favorite apps. Keep all the important information from your other apps in one place by automatically sending notifications about tasks, upcoming events, or team wins to Google Chat.

Image Credits: Header graphic includes photo from Laszlo Kiss via Unsplash. Published in 2018, this piece was updated by Justin Pot to include new features.

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Matthew Guay picture

Matthew Guay

Matthew Guay is an editor and writer in Bangkok. When he's not writing, he's likely reading a new book or exploring random streets in a new city. Follow Matthew at @maguay.

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