Crocodoc: free, super-easy document sharing with a security downside

March 2, 2010

Crocodoc.com is a very simple service that may be just the thing if you need to  get quick, fuss-free feedback on a word document, PDF, or slide presentation.  But Crocodoc is a bit too stripped down for many purposes, and the tradeoff for extreme ease of use is a lack of security.   Here’s a  quick-review.

Crocodoc  allows you to quickly and easily share your documents with those who need to review them:  in the free version of the service, you simply go to the Crocodoc website and –without any registration or login required– upload a document from your own computer to the site, where it automatically receives a unique URL. Mail this URL to your reviewers and when they click or browse to it, your document will appear in an attractive and intuitive-to-use interface where they can add Post-it-like “sticky notes”, highlight and strike-out text or add simple annotations.

crocodoc interface

But that’s about all you can do: Crocodoc is just a markup tool: it has no full-fledged editing capabilities, so your reviewers can’t can’t add or rewrite text, as is possible with shared Google docs.  Everyone’s markup looks the same, so there’s no way to know which of multiple reviewers struck out  or highlighted certain text  (though each reviewer could, of course, sign his own sticky notes).  And there’s no way at all to track multiple rounds of  changes, as in MS Word (and even, in a more basic way, in Google docs).

Perhaps most problematic, in Crocodoc, there’s no way to enter suggested changes into the document to create a final, edited version,  or even to download the marked-up documents back to your own computer for final editing,  so you would presumably have to keep your marked-up Crocodoc document open in your browser while entering the marked-up changes into  the original document .

Still, for some purposes and for some people, Crocodoc could be an improvement over what has become the default document sharing method: email. Many PDFs and presentation files are too big to email easily, and many people lack the right programs to open and annotate these kinds of files.   What’s more,  though they may be limited, Crocodoc’s markup tools will probably be much easier for occasional computer users to  master than those in more sophisticated programs (where the most basic markup and edit functions are often hidden beneath a series of menus– impossible for non-experts to find, let alone use.  Adobe and Microsoft I’m talking to you!)

And if  your reviewers (or you) simply hate the hassle of opening yet another online account and juggling yet another set of  user names and passwords,  Crocodoc’s simplicity could provide welcome relief.

But Crocodoc’s ease of use comes at a price: because no one needs to login to see your doc, anyone who finds out the URL of your document can access it just as easily as you and your collaborators can.  Crocodoc says they give your docs “unguessable URLs (e.g. http://crocodoc.com/gQlo2g).”  It’s probably true that they are “unguessable”, but  anyone who sees the URL (say, in the email you send to your reviewer) can use it.  And you should bookmark or copy your Crocodoc URL immediately– if you lose it, you won’t be able to get back to your marked-up document.

So I’d reserve Crocodoc’s free service for documents that aren’t sensitive in any way.  Crocodoc’s  “pro” upgrade ($8 a month, $36 a year) provides greater security, mainly because pro users do need to register and login to view their documents. The pro account also allows you to keep track of all the documents you’ve uploaded without remembering their URLs.

(BTW,  Google docs, with its far more developed editing and upload/download capabilities, also provides a way to share docs so that reviewers don’t need to login –though the Google doc creator must have a Google account. But Google docs shared this way are also viewable by any one who has the URL; there’s really no way to make online docs both completely accessible to those you want to see them and completely inaccessible to those you don’t want to see them without requiring a sign-in.)

Crocodoc says you can upload  “PDFs, Word documents, and PowerPoint presentations” to their site; presumably that means any .pdf file, .doc file –whether created in Word or another word processing program– and any slide presentation in the form of a .ppt file.

There’s no way, via the user panel,  to remove a document from Crocodoc once you upload it;  Crocodoc told me, in answer to an emailed query, that  you can “let [them] know the URL and [they’ll] remove it.”   Otherwise, your docs will stay on the site “permanently.”  (Keep in mind, though, that web services, especially free ones,frequently change their terms of service or even disappear.)

Other perspectives: If you are considering using Crocodoc, you might also want to see what Rebecca Leaman of  Wild Apricot blog had to say about Crocodoc (her comments tipped me off to it). Read what some other Crocodoc users think about the site on the Crocodoc user forum.   The Crocodoc team –which describes itself as the “MIT entrepreneurs behind WebNotes, an acclaimed research management tool”– seems eager for feedback and ready to make changes.

But  if you are looking for a remarkably simple way to distribute a document for review –and don’t need high security or much in the way of editing functions– Crocodoc.com is worth a look.

Filed under: Google docs,iTools 101,webmaker tools

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