Free web-based email makes you think of dead-giveaway addresses like, which are unsuitable for putting on a business card or resume. But setting up your own email server or paying a hosting provider to do it for your small organization can be costly or time-consuming. The good news is you can get all the benefits of the leading web-based email service out there — Google’s Gmail — with a address for free.

With a Google Apps account, you can look like you’ve got a full IT team behind your small organization but get the simple setup and access that web-based applications offer. Google Apps (formerly named “Google Apps for Your Domain”) includes Gmail, calendar and document sharing, simple web site hosting, and instant messaging to all the people involved at your dot-com for free.

Here’s how it works. Say you own a web site domain name like (That you’ve got to pay for; prices range from $10 to $60 a year.) With a Google Apps account associated with this domain, you can create up to 50 users (in the free plan) in Google Apps, like,, and Each person gets his or her own email account, calendar (for sharing amongst the group), instant messenger account on Google Talk, and Google Docs account for sharing and collaborating on office documents like spreadsheets, Word documents, and slide shows.

I’ve used Google Apps for two domains (one work-related, and one personal) for over two years now. Here’s what the apps domain dashboard looks like inside Google Apps:

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The most obvious advantages to using Google Apps is the low cost, zero maintenance, and data storage “in the cloud,” which means your email, documents, and events are always available anywhere you can get online with a web browser. You don’t need an IT system administrator to create accounts and give users access to services; you can do that all yourself using Google Apps’ dashboard. You don’t have to worry about data backup (it’s all stored on Google’s servers), hitting email account storage limits (Gmail’s up to 7GB of storage per user now), or futzing with VPNs, firewalls, or specific software. At any time you can choose to switch to another provider and take your domain name with you, which means you don’t have to change your email address if you decide Google Apps isn’t working for you.

The main disadvantage to using Google Apps’ free plan over paying a hosting provider is that if the server goes down or you have problems with your account, you don’t have a direct line to tech support. (A $50/year Google Apps account does include phone support for “critical issues.” I don’t have experience with this, but in general Google is notoriously bad at offering tech support on an individual basis. When you have troubles, you’ve got to scour mailing lists and blogs to find out what the story is.) Also, some organizations might not feel comfortable storing private information or documents on Google’s servers.

But for a family, softball team, side business, small business, or individual who just wants professional-looking email addresses and an easy way to share documents and calendars, Google Apps is a great solution. While I do back up my email to my computer from my Google Apps account periodically just in case the day comes when Gmail’s down and no one’s home, that day has not come yet.

To find out more about Google Apps, check out Google’s extensive help section on what it is and how to set it up.

Gina Trapani is the founding editor of personal productivity blog, and the author of Upgrade Your Life: The Lifehacker Guide to Working Smarter, Faster, Better. She lives in San Diego, California.