Google Docs are Not Docs

I recently had a pretty awful learning experience with Google Docs. I learned that Google Docs as you see them on your local hard drive are not actually documents.

The source of the confusion is the UI

I assumed that the documents that I saw synced to my local Google Drive folder with extensions like .gsheet or .gdoc were spreadsheet and word processing documents that were saved in Google’s proprietary file format, analogous to the way that a .docx or .xlsx are Microsoft Word and Excel documents. This is not the case. I learned this the hard way.

I was doing some organizing and I decided to move some Google documents out of my Google Drive folder temporarily. I wanted to archive some files while keeping a select few in Google drive. I figured I’d be able to drop any important ones back into my Google drive later. After all, I perceived them to be standalone documents that could always be edited with Google Sheets or Google Docs. I imagined that all I needed to do was upload them to Google Drive to edit them. Once I had moved the Google Doc “files” in question out of my Google Drive I emptied the trash to free up storage space on Google Drive. This was my fatal error.

Later I dropped some .gsheet files back into my Google Drive folder, and waited as they synchronized. I went to open a large .gsheet I had been working on which I planned to continue working on, and… I got a 404 Error: File not found. What?!

I spent some time troubleshooting to make sure everything was syncing properly. I assumed a sync error must be the issue. When I realized everything was syncing fine I desperately started searching for a solution to my issue. Many hours of work were missing and I needed my data back. I learned that was that I was completely screwed.

Locally stored Google Drive “documents” are not documents

A bit of research led me to an awful realization: Google docs on your local hard drive are not documents. They are essentially links to Google server-based versions of those documents. If you remove your Google documents from your Google drive folder (believing that you have safely copied your data) and then empty the trash on your Google Drive, the files will cease to exist and will be unrecoverable! The “copies” you made are not the data. They just copies of links to the data. And in this case, that data is now permanently deleted.

Why would this be the expected behavior?

I felt completely confident that my redundant backup systems were safely squirreling away the contents of my google drive. A loss of data like seemed to me to be impossible.

I feel justified in blaming the User Experience in this case. I really don’t know how I could have anticipated the result. I believed I had taken all the precautions necessary to protect my data. I do not accept that this was my mistake.

I discovered that the minor catastrophe of my personal experience was dwarfed by some of the truly awful experiences other people have had. One victim purchased the domain in protest. I feel for him. I have to agree. Google drive is great until it becomes an absolute fucking nightmare… irrevocably and without warning. 

I hope you are reading this before making the same mistake. If not, I’m sorry you had to learn about it this way.

It appears that the UI of Google Drive has remained flawed in this critical way for years. This ancient discussion I found really serves to illustrate just how confusing this issue can be as the conversation goes round and round with the main issue needing to be re-explained to each new person who joins.

2 thoughts on “Google Docs are Not Docs”

  1. Thanks for the write-up. Yours was the first explanation that makes sense and reinforces what I’d assumed was happening to me.

    I found your page while searching for why my local .gdocs and .gsheets “files” were throwing a “file not found” error when clicked. It turns out I did almost the exact same thing you did: Moved my files out of the Drive folder temporarily, happened to empty my Drive trash (for the first time in probably four years), then tried to access my local “files” (which were only links).

    Really stupid behavior on Google’s part (yet another reason I’m starting my migration away from Google’s products and services).

    1. I’m glad it was helpful in explaining what happened. A lot what I read relevant to this assumed some level of understanding on the part of the user and were even condescending at times in their tone. The fact that even one person benefited from my explanation makes it worthwhile to have put it out there.

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