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Note: This article is part of a 14-article series on getting the most out of Google Voice. We are currently updating this and the other articles, and adding new ones. You may find this to be a work-in-progress for a few weeks while we update the series.
It's kind of funny that there's a long-running battle between Google and a company named Oracle, because — in ancient times — if you wanted an answer to any question, you'd go to the Oracle at Delphi. Nowadays, if you want an answer to any question, you generally go to Google.
While the priestesses at Delphi might be able to divine your future from their drug-induced stupor, they'd never have been able to find out who the frak just called you on the phone.
Unfortunately, neither can Google, and this drives me nuts.
The curse of caller-ID
We get a lot of phone calls here at Camp David. Many of them are legitimate calls, a whole ton of them are robo-dialers and spam, and some are important business calls from numbers we've never previously encountered.
Google Voice allows us to assign a name to a number, so if a call comes in from 202-456-1414, we know it's from the NSA switchboard because we've already added that number to the Google Voice contact list (yes, we've actually gotten calls from the NSA, along with the CIA, FBI, and a wide variety of "I have a strange life" callers). But when a call comes in from a number we haven't already added, we don't know who it is.
Worse, we get a lot of calls without messages. Sure, a few of them might be crank calls. A few of them might be spam calls. But some of them are people we might actually want to talk to, but either didn't leave a message, or were confused about what number they had dialed.
We get this a lot from friends who somehow call my work number (responding to the number on their caller ID, but not the number left in the message I left for them). They then return the call, get a message that sounds like an office, and hang up. We also get these sorts of missed calls from businesses we want to speak to, and they, too, sometimes don't leave a message.
Part of this is Google Voice's fault, because it takes something like eight rings before Google Voice picks up. But no matter what, we still want to know who is calling.
Google is not helpful in this regard
If you type a phone number into Google, you rarely get anything helpful. Most of the time, you get listings of numbers and links to very shady-seeming phone number reverse lookup services. These reverse lookup services promise to tell you who's at the end of the number — for a fee.
Sadly, not one of these services seems to come from a major, recognizable company. They all sort of seem to be run by some guy named Yegor out of Belarus, and I worry that if I give him my credit card number, he'll not only randomly choose some names from a text file, he'll also try to sell me his family's goat — and then sell my credit card number for a penny on some IRC channel.
An ideal Google service from Google
This (reverse number lookup, not goat sales) would an ideal service for Google
First, telephone number reverse lookup in today's world is the job of an aggregator. Phone numbers are assigned by a lot of different carriers and isolating which number was assigned to who, from what carrier, is just the sort of thing Google's databases should be good at.
It's also a great deal-making opportunity for Google's many lawyers, especially since they have carrier relationships with most cellular carriers through Android.
Google already uses information it gathers about you to tune your results. It tunes them via Google Plus circles, and it also tunes them by best-guess geo-location or geo-IP lookups. For example, as soon as I type in "Home Depot" in Google's search box, I'm immediately shown a map with the nearest Home Depot store highlighted perfectly.
For reverse phone number lookup to work reliably and helpfully, Google has to do a lot more cleanup than they normally do on search results (or even shopping results). Google shouldn't just present a pile of random listings, but really add some value, perhaps presenting the top three probable sources of the call.
Give us a reason to want to use Google Plus
This would also be an ideal justification for signing up for Google Plus.
Facebook knows a tremendous amount about most of us, but Google could integrate its social graph right into Google Voice.
Using Google Plus, Google could scan your circles — circles linked to circles through the social graph, to see if the phone number belongs to anyone in those circles (or exists on any data indexed by Google that relates to people in those circles). Google would have a much better chance of using circle-enhanced searching to identify phone numbers.
Even better, though, would be if Google provided this as a feature in Google Voice. Rather than listing a number without a contact name, when a call comes in, it could list the number and then list three "possible" caller names, right in the message or the Web interface.
After all, since Google is the oracle of all information, it seems strange that it can't tell you who owns a given phone number.
Before I go, I'll leave you with a final thought and a question. If Google can't do reverse number lookup, then this might be a job for Wolfram-Alpha (one of my absolute favorite tools on the Internet).
If you currently use a reliable reverse number lookup service (even if it's got something like a yearly fee), please post a comment below (unless, of course, you're Yegor in Belarus) and let us all know.