My Battle with Google

I recently met with a junior developer who was seeking web development career advice. When we met, she had clearly done her research on me, knowing my educational background and my general career path. It had been years since I Googled myself, and I became curious what info arises for my name. I’ve successfully avoided social media for the most part, but I have been working on and writing for my personal site, AlexBrinkman.com, since 2006, and EnlightenedPixel (this site) since 2010. I assumed could be found if using my full name. I was wrong, and it pissed me off.

I rank in the number one spot for the term “Alex Brinkman” on Bing, DuckDuckGo, Yahoo, and a few other minor search engines, but I don’t even have a result on Google. How can that even be? I’m not crying over not being number one, or even on the first page, I don’t care about that. I’m confused because I’m not anywhere in the first 10 pages of Google results. I would understand, and be fine with being in the 20th spot, as long as someone, like this junior developer, who was looking for me could find me.

This kicked off a bit of a deep dive into modern day Google SEO, something I haven’t spent time on in quite a while.

My Assumptions Going In

  • I’m not doing anything even remotely nefarious that would incur a penalty. I have no ads, no keyword spamming crap, no black-hat SEO tactics at work.
  • I assumed having the domain name alexbrinkman.com should go a very long way. My name is naturally and appropriately listed, both on this site and on my personal site from the about page, the description, and such, which should be enough to be indexed for that particular search term.

Here’s What I Learned

Google Search Console is a newer tool that gives great insight into their indexing and other errors that could hinder a ranking.

  • I corrected a mistake where Google had indexed “alexbrinkman.com” as canonical vs “www.alexbrinkman.com”. I made everything consistent as far as subdomains.
  • I added a sitemap.xml file and submitted it to Google. I previously believed the sitemap to be irrelevant as long as the content is properly linked, which it was.
  • Search Console enabled me to verify that my pages were in fact indexed. I confirmed this by forcing Google to narrow results to my domain with the search site:www.alexbrinkman.com and could see all of my pages in the results.
  • My URLs need to end in “/”, an annoying artifact inherent to Jekyll static sites. If you leave off the “/” it 301 redirects to the “/” version. I don’t believe that should affect SEO rankings, but I made sure that my internal links at least pointed to the “/” version so that there wasn’t an unnecessary redirect.

I also fixed most of the issues reported by Google’s Lighthouse audit, taking my site from a decent score to a nearly perfect score, on both desktop and mobile.

Lighthouse Audit

Still Nothing

These errors all seemed very minor to me. I can see dropping a few ranking spots by having a handful of minor issues, but getting dropped from the index (not technically, but practically) for these issues didn’t make sense to me. Something else was going on. I even checked to see if there were any “manual actions” (complaints) taken against the site. There were not.

Finally

In the end, I realized that nearly all sites showing in Google are https. I had heard that Google will penalize a site for not being https, and I had wrongly assumed it was a penalty that would, for example, put you on page 3 instead of page 1. It seems the penalty is quite a bit more severe. It was time to move to SSL.

My site was hosted on S3 and I wasn’t sure how to install an SSL certificate. There are plenty of tutorials on getting SSL to work using CloudFront as a CDN, but it was more work than I was wanting to take on.

I had previously looked at Netlify for static sites, which offer built-in SSL. It seemed easier to move the site over to Netlify than to go the CloudFront route. This turned out to be the silver lining of this SEO adventure. Netlify is a joy of an experience - it is so unbelievably easy. I migrated my site, including nameservers, DNS, SSL, and deployment in under 15 minutes. It was so easy I immediately moved my other static sites.

The next day I was ranking in Google. It is a few pages down but climbing, and I’m just fine with that.