Google Voice: One Number to Rule Them All

Google VoiceBack in July, I received my Google Voice invitation and promptly started testing the system. If you aren’t familiar with Google Voice, it’s a free* service that provides you with a phone number and a number of “Voice Features“. The service doesn’t replace your phone lines, think of it as having a main, super number. The most notable feature is caller-based routing to the myriad of phones the average person has these days… or as I like to call it “one number to rule them all”. Also notable are a robust voicemail system, voicemail transcription and call switching. This is not a comprehensive review, it’s more like the selling points I give to people when I explain why they should call me on my new number.

Feature Overview

Google Voice offers a long list of features including:

  • One number – the only number you need to give anyone, rings any combination of authorized phones at the same time
  • Call routing – sends the call to specified phones based on who is calling (eg. Mom: mobile and house, Boss: mobile and office)
  • Voicemail – including personalized greetings for specified callers, a web site to manage messages and the ability to forward the audio file as an email attachment
  • Voicemail Transcription – automatically transcribes your voicemail messages (sometimes with hilarious results), sends them via SMS or email and stores them for review and management
  • Call Switching – start a conversation on your mobile phone, then seamlessly switch to your home phone (thus saving minutes on your wireless plan)
  • Block Spam Phone Calls – as far as they are concerned, you don’t exist anymore

How It Works

When someone calls your Google Number, the call is routed through Google’s service and forwarded to the phone(s) of your choice based on your settings. If you don’t answer or you reject the call, Google’s voicemail feature kicks in. The voicemail gets stored for later access by phone, like traditional voicemail, and is also made available in your account on the Google Voice web site. On the web site, you can play the audio or read a automated transcript of the message. When the audio plays, it highlights the words in the transcript as it goes (kind of like “follow the bouncing ball”). The transcripts aren’t perfect. In fact, they are down right funny when they get something wrong (which is often). Yet, even when the transcript is littered with errors, it’s accurate enough to get the general idea of the message. These transcripts can also be sent to your mobile phone as a text message or sent to an email address.

Placing a call is a bit of a downer. If you place a call like you normally would, your actual phone number will appear on the other phone. Since many people don’t dial a number on their mobile phone, they usually use the “Recent Calls” feature, this means they won’t be using your Google Number. To get your Google Number to appear, you have to place a call to your Google Number, wait for the prompt, then dial the outgoing number including area code. That’s a lot of dialing and defeats half of the purpose of having a contact list on your phone. Alternatively, you can initiate a call from the Google Voice website with just a couple of clicks.

The Power Feature: Call Forwarding (aka Emergency Contact Number)

Call forwarding allows people to reach you on any or all of your phones (home, mobile, office, etc. ) by dialing one number. I’ll give you an example:

There’s an emergency at your child’s school and they need to reach a parent NOW. They dial your Google Number and your mobile phone rings… and your home phone… and your office phone… and your spouse’s mobile phone… and your spouse’s office phone. It doesn’t matter which of your phones you’re near, it rings. That feature sold me on the service. Fortunately, the emergency isn’t life threatening:

Even when there isn’t an emergency, the caller-based routing is convenient for directing calls from family, friends and business associates. When family calls, they are directed to my home or mobile phone. When a business contact calls, they are directed to my office or mobile phone. There are some people I don’t want to use ANY of my mobile plan’s minutes on, they get sent to a landline only.

There are some restrictions to this feature. You can’t forward calls to a mobile phone that is registered with another Google Voice number. You also can’t forward calls to a phone number unless you have gone through their verification process. This process is simple and is part of the setup anyways, you just need to have access to the phone line while verifying it.

Personalized Voicemail Greetings

Every contact in your account can have their own personalized greeting when they are sent to voicemail. It’s a nice touch and also fun to freak people out when the phone addresses them by name. In addition to a default message, you can also set up greetings by groups, so all business associates get a professional greeting, while friends and family can get a warmer, friendlier prompt.

Call Switching

There have been plenty of times when I received a call on my mobile phone on the way home. Sometimes that conversation goes on for awhile. I’ll still be on the phone by the time I get home. I’ve burned through 30 minutes on my mobile plan and this conversation isn’t near over. By simply pressing the “*” key during the conversation, my home phone will ring. As soon as I answer my home phone, I’ll hang up my mobile and the conversation continues without having to say “can I call you back on my landline?” Now the rest of my call is free (it’s an incoming call after all) and I didn’t have to stop the conversation.

Squash Spam Phone Calls

Many retailers use your phone number for their club and rewards programs. I’m not sure what they do with all of those numbers, but I’m sure some are sold to auto warranty scammers. With Google Voice, you can tag those phone numbers as spam or flat out block them entirely. How many times have you wished you could do that with your landline?

Drawbacks

I’ve detailed the problem with dialing out using your Google Number above. There are workarounds for some users of smartphones. If you own a Blackberry or Android-based phone, you can download an application that replaces your phone’s dialer with a Google Voice interface. You select your contact, your phone rings and the other party’s phone rings. Easy-peasy-lemon-squeezy. On the iPhone, you need to either jailbreak your phone or been lucky enough to have purchased one of the Google Voice apps that were available before they were wished into the cornfield.

There’s is still hope that you will be able to port one of your existing numbers to your Google Number. That will eliminate the dial out issue.

You know those free mobile-to-mobile minutes that your phone plan has? Well, they don’t work with Google Voice. Since all calls, incoming and outgoing, are really inbound calls from your Google Number, there are no mobile-to-mobile connections. Thus, no free minutes. That’s something to keep in mind when using the system.

Training  your contacts to call your Google Number can be a pain. I had to resort to changing my mobile phone’s voicemail greeting to say “This number has changed to XXX-XXX-XXX, please make a note of it”. It’s a little severe, but I really want people to use the new number. Google also tries to help out by giving you 25 free business cards with your new number so you can pass them out.

Otherwise, the benefits far outweigh the drawbacks. Technically, Google Voice is still in beta. Some people have experienced issues with receiving calls (Steve, want to chime in on this?). The quality of the voice messages is a bit low for my taste and may be a contributing factor to the accuracy of the transcriptions. These issues haven’t been enough to keep me from publishing my Google Number as part of my contact info.


* All of the services are free with the exception of international calls. Since the system works by calling you and then the other party, Google is footing the bill for the call. That may be a minimal expense for domestic calls, but international calls are a different story. Fortunately, Google offers very low rate international calling rates.

UPDATE: Check out Steve’s take on Google Voice in his post “Google Voice: One Number & More.”

4 Responses to “Google Voice: One Number to Rule Them All”

  1. Razz says:

    The connection issues I experienced, and referenced by Mike in the post, revolved around telco connectivity. People calling me would get a busy signal, a message saying all circuits were busy, or at times just silence. If the Google Voice help forum is any indication, many others were having similar issues. It seemed to be focused in certain area codes or possibly specific prefixes in those area codes. There were comments they thought it could be the local telco not handling the switching of the Google Voice numbers properly. In my case I submitted the online forms and after a few weeks (enough time I was considering abandoning the use of GV) it just cleared up. Now everything seems very solid.

  2. Polprav says:

    Hello from Russia!
    Can I quote a post in your blog with the link to you?

  3. Razz says:

    You are welcome to reference our content, but please cite the source. Thanks for asking.

  4. […] Google Voice, you should check it out. A full description, and review, can be found on my tech blog here, and here. Obviously, it’s from Google, so Android users have this one easy. iPhone users […]