Google Docs, Sheets, Drawings, and Slides documents record every change and/or edit that's ever made. This catalog of document changes is called the Version History. While Microsoft Word has the ability to turn 'track changes' on and off for a document, Google takes this to the next level by recording EVERY change and continuously recording those changes ALL the time.

The Version History is a powerful tool that you can wield in all kinds of powerful ways. Be warned, though: the Version History can also be used against you, possibly revealing embarrassing information that you didn't want to become public. Thus, while you may not choose to master Version History, you do need to know enough to protect yourself from accidentally revealing sensitive information.

How to View a Document's Version History

There are at least three ways to view a document's version history, which I'll show from quickest to slowest. While I'll use Google Docs as my example here, the process is identical in Sheets and Slides.

1. Quickest Way: Hit Ctl+Shift+Alt+ H on your keyboard (if you're on a Mac, it's ⌘ + Option + Shift + h), which is the keyboard shortcut to reveal the Version History.

2. Quick Way: Find your document's title, then look down and right of the title for a statement about the document's edit history. It will be something along the lines of, "Last edit was on December 23". Click on this link, which will reveal the Version History:

3. Not-So-Quick Way: Click on the File menu, scroll down to 'Version History, then 'See version history', and click it:

How to Navigate a Document's Version History

Once you're inside a document's Version History, you'll see a grey bar across the top of the screen and a timeline of all the document edits down the right-hand side of the screen. If you want to see more granular edits, click the 'Show more detailed revisions' button in the bottom right-hand corner.

If you select an edit date from the right-hand timeline, all of the edits from that date will be visible and highlighted with different colors to denote each user's contributions and changes. You can quickly skip between edits by using the arrows at the top of the display, which is a lifesaver in long documents:

Under each entry in the timeline, you'll also see an option to 'Restore this revision'. If you click this, the document will be revised to just reflect the changes made up until that point in time. You still have the option to undo this, since you can restore your second-to-last revision to undo the restoration of an old version.

Who can see a Document's Version History?

Only a document's owner and editors can access a document's version history. If you want to check who has access to the version history, open your document's sharing settings. The version history is hidden from anyone who has View or Comment access:

Using Version History for Good

The obvious use case for Version History is to look back at changes to a document. If there are unexpected changes, or you just want to ensure that no unexpected changes have been made, you can review the Version History for edits. Here are a few additional ways that you can get more out of Version History.

Get Insight into Student Work

You have a student who is often submitting low-quality writing compositions and you're curious what's going on. You can use Version History to see exactly how often the student edited their essay, when they started, and how much time they spent on it. Did they submit a last-minute first draft, or did the student start early and complete multiple revisions? How did they actually use their in-class time to work on the assignment? Did they spend the whole class typing "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy"? 

For group projects, Version History also gives you an idea of how much each student contributed. Did one student do all of the typing, or do you see a balance between the group members?

One Version to Rule them All

It's common, especially during budget season, for multiple versions of the same document to be sent back and forth between the Finance department and other folks in the organization. For instance, Finance might create a budget template for my department, and send me a copy of the document (copy #1). I then add my projections and send a new copy (copy #2) back to Finance, who then makes comments and revisions, then sends it back to me for approval (copy #3), so that I can review the revisions (copy #4), and so on, and so on, and so on. Inevitably, we end up with conflicting versions ("I didn't see the changes I made in Copy #6 reflected in the latest version, Copy #9, that I received from...") that take time to sort out. 

If you're using Google Docs, all of these copies are redundant. You only need one document and all the different versions are there, saved forever in the version history, with the added bonus of having a name attached to each change. It's the All-Powerful Upgrade to Track Changes, and it can be used for budgets, meeting notes, or almost any other document that suffers from versioning challenges.

Watch Your Own Writing Process with DraftBack

The Draftback Chrome extension is a nifty tool that will play back a document's entire history, as if you were watching a bioptic film about it. OK, maybe not the most exciting movie ever (especially since it doesn't include any formatting changes), but it can be useful to watch the 'game film' of your writing process to give you an idea how often you self-edit when typing, how many typos you commit, etc. Here's a short demonstration of what it looks like.

Look for Evidence of Student Cheating

Version History will show if your students are actually writing their papers in Google Docs, or if they're copying and pasting their entire assignment all at once. Revision History, especially combined with DraftBack, will either show you the slow evolution of the student's paper over time, or it might show the entire essay appearing all at once, having been copied from another source. Of course, copying and pasting text doesn't necessarily mean plagiarism; the student might have done their writing in another application. It can, however, give you some clues if you suspect a student isn't completing their own work. 

This more in-depth video gives an example of how Version History caught a student's parent who was writing their papers for them. Revision History showed paragraphs had been added to a student's paper while that student was in gym class!

Show Before-and-After Evidence of Work You've Done

Let's say you're sitting down with your supervisor for your performance review. You've put a lot of work into re-designing some of your department's documents. You can use Version History to show off the work you've done: "This is what the Policy Doc looked like when I inherited it, and look at how I was able to improve it." Boom, you get a raise instantly.

The Dark Side of Version History

Like The Force, there's a light side and a dark side to Version History. The potential dark side is the unintentional leaking of information you didn't intend.

Remember that when you add a new editor to a document, they'll be able to see every comment and change that your document has been through. Here's are just a few examples where this might reveal consequential information to recipients:

  • You're submitting a writing sample as a part of your application to Graduate School; the reviewer can see how much time you spent on it, how many editors helped you, and how many revisions it went through.
  • You're sending a draft contract to a school group; the receiving principal can see how the price was revised upwards several times, as well as the comments where you discussed these price hikes with colleagues.
  • You take notes during a staff hiring meeting about how you arrive at your top choice for the position; after your new hire starts working, they can use Version History to see which of their new co-workers preferred the other candidate. 
  • You make an unpopular change to the Employee Policies and Procedures; though you aren't identified as the author of the policy change, employees with editing access can still track you down as the person responsible for changes.

So, as useful as Version History can be, there are occasions when you might want to purge the timeline of revisions to a document. Fortunately, there are two easy ways to do this:

  1. Export your document as a PDF. Changing a document to a PDF (or, actually, any other format) will remove the revision history from the exported file. The original document will still have its version history, but the PDF will be history-free.
  2. Make a copy of your document. If you make a copy of your original document (File -> Make a Copy), the new copy won't bring any comments or revisions over with it. To any reviewer, this new document had no history before it was copied.