A brief update

Over the last couple years, I’ve seen more and more people in technology trying to make government work better. They’re idealists who are also making a large impact. These are people that I respect–some of them worked to fix healthcare.gov, for example. From talking to many of them, I can tell you that their energy is contagious and they’re trying to improve things in all kinds of ways.

I want to see whether I can help too. So for the next few months, I’ll be taking a leave from Google. I’m joining the US Digital Service family, specifically the Defense Digital Service at the Pentagon. I’ll be moving out to Washington, D.C., as part of the change. If you’re in the area, please say hello! And if you’re interested in the US Digital Service, you can find more information at usds.gov.

Thanks, Amit

Amit Singhal just announced that he’s retiring toward the end of the month. Amit has been a formative part of Google’s search team, but he’s also a good friend. Last year, after he marked 15 years with Google, I wrote this about Amit’s contributions:

Amit Singhal, one of the unsung heroes of Google, just celebrated 15 years at the company. If you’ve ever gotten a magical answer from Google, you probably have Amit to thank for it.

I can’t think of another person who has taken on so many different roles–individual contributor, manager, and head of search, not to mention dealing with press–and done such a superb job in each role. When a regular person hits a wall and gets discouraged, that’s when Amit is just getting started. 🙂 It’s always fun to see how he cuts to the root of a problem and solves it. I’m proud to call him my friend.

Billions of people have benefited in some way from Amit’s insight and judgment. Google will miss you, but thank you for everything, Amit. I’m also thankful that the leadership of search remains in excellent hands, including an experienced group of contributors and leaders in core ranking.

Solving a Verizon issue (Nexus 5X)

I solved a problem today and figured that I’d document it for the rest of the world. Every time someone left me a voicemail on Verizon, I would get a cryptic text from Verizon at 900080006202 that looked like “//VZWVVM:SYNC:ev=NM;id=1;c=1;t=v;s=1XXXXXXXXXX;dt=18/01/2016 13:40-0900;l=13;dev_t=5” or “//VZWVVM:SYNC:ev=MBU;dev_t=5”.

Here’s what happened. It turns out that Verizon has three kinds of voicemail: basic voicemail (free), basic visual voicemail (also free), and premium visual voicemail ($2.99/month). I have a Nexus 5X and I recently switched from an unlimited Verizon data plan to a different plan (long story).

As part of that shift, it looks like Verizon switched me to visual voicemail. I suspect a lot of phones that you get at a Verizon store have some sort of visual voicemail app pre-installed. That app probably intercepts those cryptic texts and uses them to show a voicemail indicator. Ever wondered how the voicemail indicator disappears so fast after you call voicemail? I suspect that’s also because of a Verizon text that is interpreted by your phone.

But a Nexus 5X doesn’t have Verizon’s voicemail app, so it just presents texts from Verizon. To fix this issue, I stopped by a Verizon store and had a rep change me from “basic visual voicemail” to “basic voicemail,” and that fixed the issue. I don’t think you can toggle that setting yourself on Verizon’s website.

Nexus 5X rocks!

By the way, I love my Nexus 5X. It fits well in my hand, the camera is superb, and the fingerprint reader is blazingly fast. Also, the speed and accuracy of voice recognition on the Nexus 5X is amazing.

A final nice feature is that you can insert a Nano SIM card from any of the major carriers in the US. I often switch my Nexus 5X over to Google Fi in various situations; for example, Fi is great if you’re traveling outside the US.

HD Voice

One last tip if you’re still on Verizon: you can get HD Voice for free, but you have to enable it. HD Voice works via Voice over LTE, or VoLTE. HD Voice should have much better audio than a regular cell phone as long as both phones support it. On Verizon’s site, go to My Verizon->My Plan & Services->My Plan->Products & Apps->Manage Products & Apps and then click Free Products. Enable HD Voice on all your compatible lines on the website.

Then you need to enable HD Voice on each of your phones. On recent Android phones, look for Settings->More->Cellular networks->Enhanced 4G LTE Mode. On iPhones, look for Settings->Cellular->Enable LTE and select Voice & Data. More info on HD Voice and Advanced Calling on Verizon is in these FAQs.

What phone are you rocking right now, and how do you like it?

Halloween 2015: USB Drive

I went a little overboard for Halloween last year. And as you can tell from my the Halloween category on my blog, sometimes I get a little too excited about Halloween.

So this year I decided to go quick, easy, and lo-fi as a USB drive:

Matt Cutts USB drive

To make a thumb drive/USB key, I just took a cardboard box, spray painted it black, and glued on some gold-colored paper. Super simple and easy to do. Then I cut out a curve for my head.

I made the mask using digital plans I bought from wintercroft.com. Once I had the materials, it took me a couple hours and was lots of fun. It was like a super-simple version of this big head costume.

If you wanted easy freedom of movement, you could also just wear the USB part on your head:

Matt Cutts USB drive

Give Google Contributor a try

Recently I’ve seen several interesting conversations about ad blocking, and I wanted to remind people about a great offering called Google Contributor. With Google Contributor, you contribute a certain amount of money each month. That subscription means that you see fewer ads on the web, and you support the sites that you visit with your money.

You get to decide how much to contribute (I do $10/month, but for example you can do $2/month if you prefer). The more you contribute, the fewer ads you see. The handwave-y explanation that when you go to a website, your monthly subscription actually bids on your behalf in ad auctions. So you end up buying the ad yourself rather than someone else. This is cool for several reasons:

1. You support the sites you visit without expending any energy.
2. You see fewer ads.
3. (And this is the cool part) you get to decide what to show in that ad space instead of ads.

That’s right: you can pick a custom URL to show to yourself instead of ads. It’s like buying space on a billboard and showing nature scenes instead of ads. Personally, I like to show a dynamically generated Mondrian-like pattern:

Mondrian-like pattern

But here’s the part I love: when you sign in, click the gear icon and then “Advanced settings,” and at the bottom of the page you can provide any custom URL you want (it does have to serve over https). You could replace ads with pictures of kittens, or your family. Or make ads your todo list, or a reminder to get back to work. Think outside the box, like Paul Ford. It’s the open web–you can have all kinds of fun with your HTML.

Here are some common misconceptions about Google Contributor:

Q: I thought Google Contributor only worked with ten websites or so?
A: No, it works with millions of websites. Contributor launched with a small set of websites initially, but if a website runs Google ads like AdSense or DoubleClick for Publishers, it’s likely to be compatible with Contributor.

Q: Isn’t there a waitlist to join? Or I need an invite or something?
A: Not anymore! You can sign up immediately and support tons of websites with one monthly payment.

Q: Can I see which websites I’m supporting?
A: Yes! You get a report that looks like this:

Contributor payout report

(Adding a few more questions)

Q: Why don’t you support Google Apps accounts? I thought it only worked with Gmail accounts?
A: This is very fresh news, but I believe Google Apps accounts are now supported. Try it out!

Q: Why doesn’t Contributor support country X or currency Y?
A: It’s safe to assume that the Contributor team has heard that feedback. I’m happy to pass that feedback on as well. That can be a complicated issue though.

If you like the web and use it as much as I do, why not support some of your favorite websites while reducing the number of ads you see? Give Google Contributor a try now.

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