Understanding Google Voice

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Google Voice is a free service that gives you a phone number.

When you dial my phone number, (707) 703-1601, you’re dialing a Google Voice number. Thanks to the Google Voice service, at the same moment my office phone rings, my cell phone rings, and Skype starts bonging on my computer.

When I call you, you see my Google Voice number as the Caller ID, regardless of what phone I use. When I send you a text message, you are surprised, because I don’t send text messages. But if I did, it would appear to come from the same number.

You don’t know any of the numbers assigned to my phones – all you see is the Google Voice number. I’ve been using it for five years. During that time the cell phone number assigned by Verizon has changed, I’ve moved my business phone service from AT&T to Comcast, I’ve added a Skype number, but all of that has been invisible to my loyal clients.

It’s taken some effort to make it work and there are still some rough edges. Let me give you a very brief overview of Google Voice, then tell you what I’ve had to do for some of the difficult parts. This is only a snapshot of a few aspects of this service! It’s complicated to think it through and figure out how it might be useful for you and make it work, but it can be rewarding.

It starts at the Google Voice web site. When you sign in with your Google Account, you will be offered a free phone number. That can be (but does not have to be) a number in your area code. Choose carefully! You might be at the beginning of a long relationship.

The online control panel then lets you enter your current phone numbers – cell, office, home. That takes you to the central concept of Google Voice:

When someone calls your Google Voice number, the call is routed to the phones you set up in the online control panel – all of them, simultaneously. When you pick up one, the others stop ringing.

You can change the call routing on the fly from the online control panel, instantly and easily. If you want to have the phone in your vacation house receive your calls during the two days you’re there, it takes only a moment to set up. If you want the phone to ring at grandma’s house while you’re there for dinner, you can do that.

Your incoming calls are only routed to your various phones if someone calls your Google Voice number. At the moment it is essentially impossible to port an existing number into the Google Voice system, so your Google Voice number will always be a new number given to you when you sign up. That is the second central concept of Google Voice:

Google Voice is most useful if you are willing to start using a new phone number.

That’s not the only way to use the service. Some people use Google Voice only to take over their voicemail, which can be set up in many (but not all) cases even if you don’t give people your Google Voice number. (Essentially your unanswered calls are forwarded to your Google Voice number, which answers and handles the voicemail.) Voicemail handled by the Google Voice system is transcribed and sent to you by email or text message, and it can be read or played back online. Granted, all too often the transcriptions are laughably poor. (“A new meetings will be having product. Our in paid. The process and paid that just wanna give you update on the new website that we thought we were revamped at.”) Still, I can almost always get a general sense of what a message is about, even if my voicemail inbox makes it look like I know a lot of people with serious learning disorders.

There are four scenarios where Google Voice might be useful to you.

  1. Do what I did and start using the new number assigned by Google Voice as your new phone number for all purposes. That means notifying your friends and relatives and business contacts and schools that you have a new number, never an easy project. If you’re an individual using a business number, you’re looking at updates to the web site, the business cards, the letterhead, and all the other places where your phone number is displayed. (If you have one of my pre-2005 business cards in a drawer, you’ll see the old numbers listed, with two entries, like many of you – separate numbers for work and cell phones. Now people can reach me with a single call to a single number, no matter where I am.)
  2. Use Google Voice only for voicemail, to take advantage of the ability to have your messages transcribed and sent to you by email or text message, and a fully searchable inbox of messages online.
  3. Use the Google Voice phone number for limited purposes. This article makes an interesting suggestion for parents – use the Google Voice number as the emergency contact number on all the forms filled out when the kids go back to school. You won’t have to chase all over town to update the forms if your phone number changes; you’ll only have to update the Google Voice control panel. You’ll be more confident that you can be reached if necessary.
  4. Google just added a new feature to Gmail that uses the Google Voice infrastructure to make and receive calls from your computer. Calls in the US and Canada are free; international calls are very cheap. It’s similar to what can be done with Skype and involves some setup that goes beyond what I can write up here. Although the name “Google Voice” is invoked, conceptually it’s more like a new feature of Gmail. Here is an article that explains how to use Gmail to make free phone calls.

Next I’ll tell you about the specific things I’ve had to do for the Google Voice service to be fully integrated into my life on the phone. Your experience will be different but perhaps you can get something useful out of listening to my stories.