Should You Use Google Hangouts for Business Communications?

Instant messaging (IM) apps aren’t just for avoiding work anymore.

Apps such as Google Hangouts now offer additional capabilities, including video calling. This means you can also avoid your co-workers’ overly zealous applications of perfume and cologne by eliminating the need for in-person interactions.

In some cases, Google Hangouts can even help your business avoid dropping serious cash on phone and conferencing services.

In this article, we’ll answer the following questions to help you decide whether Hangouts can meet your business’s needs:

(Click on a link below to jump to that section.)

What Can Hangouts Do?
What Do I Need a Google Apps for Work Account For?
What Are the Features of Hangouts?
How Can I Do More with Hangouts?
What Are My Alternatives?

We’ll also take an in-depth look at the strengths and weaknesses of Hangouts for different kinds of communications (video conferencing, webcasting, instant messaging, voice calling, etc.).

You can skip ahead to the communications features you’re most interested in:

(Click on a link below to jump to that section.)

Chat/Text
Voice
Video
Webcasting

What Can Hangouts Do?

Google has offered messaging, voice calling and video calling services to users in some form or another for over a decade.

Starting with the launch of the Hangouts platform in 2013, Google began tying these services together into a business-grade package that supports 21st-century workplace collaboration:

Google Hangouts Capabilities
 

Hangouts now offers many of the advanced unified communications features included in some of the most robust business phone systems.

For example, Hangouts can be accessed in a variety of ways across multiple devices, including:

  1. Gmail
  2. The desktop app (for Google’s Chrome OS and Windows)
  3. The browser plugin (for Chrome, Internet Explorer, Firefox and Safari)
  4. The mobile app (for Android and iOS)
  5. The Hangouts website
  6. Google+ (Google’s social media network)

Additional services include:

  • The Hangouts Dialer for making cheap calls with Android devices over Wi-Fi instead of cellular networks. (Read more in the section on voice calling.)

The ease of using Hangouts across various devices, browsers and operating systems is a major reason to consider Google’s solution for video calling and messaging over similar applications.

Gary Guisenov, CEO of Business Hangouts (a popular web conferencing platform built on top of Hangouts) explains:

“Cisco’s WebEx and Citrix’s GoToMeeting require apps to be installed on your devices, along with all the associated files, in order for the solutions to work properly. Often, those installations don’t go smoothly. There are issues with browser compatibility, operating system compatibility, lack of updated codecs, etc. You get into a war between your devices and your software, where you can’t have assumed continuity across the organization.”

Gary Guisenov, CEO of Business Hangouts

By contrast, the many ways to use Hangouts make it much simpler to scale the solution across an organization.

Guisenov adds that Hangouts can be highly cost-effective for enterprises as well as startups:

“When you compare the operating expenses for Hangouts across tens of thousands of employees with Microsoft and other platforms out there, Google is much cheaper.”

That being said, Hangouts does have some significant limitations. For instance, some capabilities of Hangouts are only enabled if you pay for a Google Apps for Work account.

Now let’s take a quick look at the case for using the paid version of Hangouts rather than the free version.

What Do I Need a Google Apps for Work Account For?

Hangouts is integrated with Google’s cloud-based office suite, which is known as Google Apps for Work. While most Google Apps are free, businesses with paid accounts get additional features with services such as Gmail and Google Drive.

For example, companies that pay for accounts have admin capabilities to manage employees’ email accounts and create personalized domains in email addresses (e.g., danielharris@softwareadvice.com).

For Hangouts, the difference between the paid version and the free version is slight: The free version limits video meetings to 10 participants, while a Google Apps for Work account supports up to 25 participants.

Additionally, you can create named video meetings with the paid version and create Hangouts that are restricted to users with accounts in your organization’s domain.

You should pay for a Google Apps for Work account for your company if you want to:

  • Gain additional functionality in other apps besides Hangouts
  • Provide employees with an integrated suite of productivity tools

Hangouts is a vital part of the Google Apps ecosystem. As Guisenov explains:

“WebEx and similar clients aren’t natively integrated into third-party office suites in the way Hangouts is. You have to leave what you’re doing—drop your document, drop your spreadsheet, close your email client and open up another application to start the conference, and then you require everyone else who’s participating to do the same.”

Gary Guisenov, CEO of Business Hangouts

It doesn’t make sense to get the paid version of Hangouts if you only want to bump up the participant count in video meetings. However, Hangouts is an attractive option if you’re also looking for other cost-effective productivity tools for employees.

What Are the Features of Hangouts?

Now let’s take a detailed look at the different types of communication the Hangout platform handles:

Chat/Text

Hangouts evolved from Google’s messaging client, and sports a range of messaging features.

Features Limitations
Collaboration: One-to-one or group chats Participants: Only 150 participants in group chats
Mobility: Conversations sync across devices (e.g., start a Hangout on your laptop and continue it on a smartphone). Cellular rates: SMS rates still apply for text messages.
SMS: Send SMS with Hangouts on Android. Send and receive SMS with a Google Voice account (more details on Google Voice can be found in the next section). Google Voice: SMS text only works with Google Voice, except outbound SMS on Android.
Federation: Exchange IMs with users of IM clients other than Hangouts. Persistent collaboration spaces: Google Hangouts’ design focuses on time-sensitive communications, such as ad hoc chats and scheduled meetings, rather than persistent collaboration spaces such as chat rooms as well as the “threads” used to organize conversations in project management software. Solutions such as Slack are better for organizations looking to create persistent spaces for team collaboration.

Chat display in Hangouts

Chat display in Hangouts
Google and the Google logo are registered trademarks of Google Inc.
Source: Google.com

Takeaway: Hangouts is a robust IM client, but it’s not ideal for organizations that use IM to blast messages to large groups (given the 150-participant limit). It also has some severe limitations when it comes to SMS messaging.

Voice

The integration of Google Voice (an internet-based telecommunications service) with Hangouts has transformed Hangouts into a lightweight telephony client. The app can now handle calling needs for employees who don’t rely heavily on their phones.

When you sign up for a Google Voice account, Google assigns you a phone number. You can use this number to make and receive calls over your internet connection rather than a traditional phone line.

In the past, Google Voice was offered as a standalone service, but it’s now integrated with the Hangouts platform.

Google Voice accounts are provided for free, though you need to purchase credits through Google to pay for making certain types of calls (more details in the table below).

You’ll need Google Voice to use some of the telephony features of Hangouts, while others don’t require a Google Voice account:

Features Limitations
Outbound: Make calls to other Hangouts users or to phone numbers on the traditional phone network. If you have Google Voice, your Google Voice number will show up on Caller ID—otherwise, your calls will display as coming from an “unknown” number. International calling: Doesn’t support international calls to certain destinations.
Inbound: Receive calls with a Google Voice number. iOS: You can’t use Hangouts to make phone calls over Wi-Fi on iOS devices.
Voice over Wi-Fi: Send Android calls over a Wi-Fi connection instead of using your cellular carrier to avoid per-minute rates. Google Voice: Google Voice service is required to receive calls with Hangouts—you can’t use a third-party carrier.
Free calling: Calls to other Hangouts users and to most U.S. numbers are free. Receiving calls with Google Voice is free. Audio conferencing: Hangouts doesn’t support audio conferencing like Google Voice did before integration (and Google Voice’s conferencing features were already quite limited.) You can set up a video conference and have everyone go audio-only, but you’ll still face the 10-participant limit (or the 25-participant limit with a paid account).
Low rates: Calls to U.S. numbers that aren’t free cost $0.01 per minute. International rates are also low. Call routing and other phone system features: Even with a Google Apps for Work account, you can’t transfer calls between your employees’ Google Voice numbers. Hangouts also doesn’t offer basic phone system applications, such as an auto attendant. You’ll need to invest in a business phone system to get these capabilities, and integrating Hangouts/Google Voice service with your phone system can be prohibitively complex.

Takeaway: If you want to use Hangouts instead of a desk phone, you’ll need a Google Voice account. If you primarily want to use its messaging and video calling features, you don’t need Google Voice.Hangouts’ basic calling features are a great way for employees to make low-cost calls while working remotely. However, Hangouts can’t be used as a substitute for a business phone system, except in companies with only a handful of workers.

Moreover, while messaging and telephony clients such as Cisco Jabber and Microsoft Lync/Skype for Business are frequently used as end-user clients in business phone system deployments, Hangouts doesn’t work for this purpose.

Finally, Hangouts won’t work as a conferencing solution for any business requiring more than the most basic audio conferencing capabilities. There are, however, third-party solutions such as UberConference that integrate with Hangouts.

Video

Along with messaging, video is the other area where the Hangouts platform really stands out from the pack:

Features Limitations
Free video calling: Video calls with Hangouts are completely free (aside from the bandwidth they use on your internet connection). Participant limit: This is the most problematic aspect of video conferencing in Hangouts. Meetings only support 10 participants with free accounts and 25 participants with paid accounts.
Users don’t need Google accounts: Google has expanded the capabilities of Hangouts so you can now make video calls even if the recipient doesn’t have a Google account by sharing the URL for the meeting. Remote desktop control: While Hangouts used to allow for remote control of a participant’s desktop (frequently used for troubleshooting purposes), support for this capability has been removed.
Screen-sharing: Google lets participants share their screens for presentations. Quality: Quality issues, such as one-way audio, have occurred with some frequency in my personal experience using Hangouts in the workplace over the past two years. I occasionally have to resort to Lync 2011 when Hangouts is acting up, though Hangouts remains my go-to client for video meetings.

Hangouts offers click-to-join links for video meetings

 
Hangouts offers click-to-join links for video meetings
Google and the Google logo are registered trademarks of Google Inc.

Takeaway: Hangouts is a great video conferencing client for organizations that don’t need to host large video meetings and that aren’t seeking HD video resolution.

Webcasting

Google’s approach to webcasting is fairly unique. Most solutions that offer webcasting are web conferencing platforms that allow you to host interactive video meetings known as webinars. Hangouts, however, only offers webcasting via a service known as Hangouts on Air.

Features Limitations
Live streaming: Hangouts can be streamed on your Google+ profile, your YouTube channel and your website. Web conferencing: Hangouts isn’t a Web conferencing platform and can’t be used for large interactive events.
Unlimited viewers: While there are participant caps for webcasts, there are no caps on viewers. Participant caps: Hangouts on Air has the same cap on participants that standard video meetings have.
Recording and editing: Recorded Hangouts are available on your YouTube channel, and you can edit them with the YouTube video editor. Length: You can only broadcast for 8 hours with a Hangout on Air.
Takeaway: Hangouts on Air can’t be used as a web conferencing solution for organizations that need to host webinars (unless you integrate it with a third-party platform, as we’ll explain below). However, it’s a useful and cost-effective webcasting tool for marketing and training purposes.

How Can I Do More with Hangouts?

If Hangouts offers most of what you need but lacks some vital capabilities, there are a number of third-party solutions on the market that considerably expand the functionality of Hangouts.

For instance, Guisenov’s Business Hangouts is a cloud-based, third-party platform that adds a range of web conferencing capabilities to Hangouts.

He explains: “Business Hangouts has created an overlay on top of Google Hangouts tailored to a business user experience. Our solution allows you to customize email messages that are sent to individual recipients, put in survey capabilities, collect payment from users, etc.”

Web conferencing with Business Hangouts

Web conferencing with Business Hangouts

In addition to Business Hangouts, there are a number of other third-party solutions that integrate with Google Hangouts. For example, UberConference is a cloud-based solution that integrates with Hangouts to add true audio-conferencing functionality to the platform.

In most cases, however, you’ll still need a proper business phone system in order to manage voice calls, even if Hangouts satisfactorily addresses your messaging and conferencing needs.

What Are My Alternatives?

The most compelling alternative to Hangouts is Microsoft’s Skype for Business.

Unlike Hangouts, Skype can’t be accessed via your browser. It also lacks some of the free calling capabilities of Hangouts, and it lacks native integration with the Google Apps ecosystem.

On the other hand, online meetings with Skype for Business can scale up to 250 participants, and Skype does integrate natively with Microsoft’s own Office 365 ecosystem.

Moreover, Skype for Business offers cloud phone system capabilities that are missing in Hangouts, such as call routing between contacts.

In addition to Skype, there are a number of other web and video conferencing solutions on the market.

  • If you’re looking for capabilities like transferring calls between employees’ numbers or placing incoming calls in a queue when no one is available to answer them, then you’ll need a full-fledged business phone system. Most systems on the market today are designed for internet-based phone service, and a few even support Google Voice service.
  • If you’re confused about your options, you can call one of our expert advisors for a free consultation about your business’s specific needs at (855) 998-8505. We can recommend solutions that offer the capabilities you need and break down pricing for the systems that fit your budget.

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