Google and the Dark Side of Searching for Perfection

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Perfection is a moving target. This week, the Cut explores the allure of trying to achieve the impossible.

According to Google, these are the top-ten searches for “How to get perfect _____.”

How to get perfect skin

How to get perfect eyebrows

How to get the perfect body

How to get perfect teeth

How to get perfect curls

How to get perfect hair

How to get the perfect tan

How to get the perfect butt

How to get the perfect messy bun

How to get the perfect abs

I can’t say I’m surprised they all focus on physical improvements. As an SEO editor — an expert on how people search for things on Google — I frequently come across shocking, interesting, thought-provoking nuggets of information. When I set about researching women and how they think about perfection for the Cut, my experience was no different.

The first search term, “how to get perfect skin,” yields 23.5 million articles. That’s almost as many as you get from searching “Kendall Jenner.” It’s three times as many results for “boosting confidence,” 16 times more than “maternity leave policies”, and nearly ten times as many as “how to stop living paycheck to paycheck.” On any given day, hundreds of thousands of women are reading about the latest Kardashian drama while also learning the right way to exfoliate (but only 538 are searching for “how to ask for a raise”).

What does this say about women and how we view perfection? We’re constantly bombarded with stories about beautiful women with perfect everything, and often, those same women are sharing the nearly impossible steps they take to look that way. So, we read an article about Kendall Jenner, and then 18,000 of us Google how we can get her shiny hair.

The flip side to searching for tips on how to achieve perfection is that thousands of women a day are also searching for inspiration about not being perfect. Whether looking for quotes about imperfections (14,800), songs about imperfections (4,400, but One Direction’s song “Perfect” gets over 200,000 searches), or personal essays about the struggle of being a perfectionist (40,000), we want to be reassured about our faults just as much as we want to correct them.

Hence, “authenticity” and “vulnerability” are the top related search terms people also use when Googling “imperfect.” The association between searching “vulnerability” and “imperfect” is considered a “breakout,” meaning that search volume has increased by over 5,000 percent in the past year. Perhaps this is because when women are seeking reassurance about their flaws, they feel imperfections make them vulnerable and authentic, which are typically considered positive qualities. And topics related to insecurity — like “overcoming insecurity,” “how to stop being so insecure,” and “signs of insecurity” — garner nearly 10,000 searches every day.

Nothing illustrates the push and pull of perfection online like Alicia Keys and her recent decision to forgo makeup at prominent events like the VMAs, the Democratic National Convention, and the BET Awards. Over the past six months, searches for her “no makeup movement” have increased by over 5,000 percent. She might not have the perfect skin (although it looks pretty beautiful to me), but she did tap into something in the Zeitgeist: Alicia Keys has nearly tripled her search traffic since June (where she appeared on the red carpet with no makeup for the first time), gathering interest from over 800,000 people per month. Maybe she knows it’s working, because she’s sticking to the no-makeup look — in the Voice premiere, she looked au naturel, freckles and all, and she recently appeared on the cover of Time Out New York makeup-free.

My high-school boyfriend once told me that my nose looked like a strawberry. I responded by telling him that was probably the meanest thing he’d ever said to me; I’ve always been self-conscious about my skin. I can’t remember how long it took after he told me my pores looked “like seeds” (he was charming) for me to want to correct my nose. By my last count, I have probably Googled “best pore minimizer” and “how to tell if you have rosacea,” at least 20 times, and those searches alone yielded 2.05 million pieces of reading material.

Google holds up a magnifying mirror to our insecurities. We’re prone to searching for whatever we view in ourselves as imperfect, and we’re not afraid of specifics. It’s not just about “how to get perfect skin” — it’s also about “how to get smaller pores” and “how to get rid of acne.” And it doesn’t stop at “how to get a perfect body” — women then want to know “how to get thinner thighs” and “how to get rid of love handles.” Take this to a masochistic level and you get 1,600 people searching for “perfect body measurements.”

There’s another explanation for all the searches about looking perfect, but it’s a bummer. Nearly 60,000 people search for “perfect girls” every day. What you get when you search those terms is porn. How many people search for “perfect guys” each day? A total of 12. In the whole world.

Out of curiosity (or a need to find something positive amidst this negativity), I Googled “women search trends on Google.” I was hoping to find some credible articles on what women want to know from the internet, aside from things about perfection and looks. On the first page of Google (prime real estate), I found one story on how women spend more time on Google than men (but only in India), links to two shopping sites (Shopbop and Nordstrom), and four articles on fashion and hair trends.

Then I tried another route: “What do women search for on the internet?” Some more international studies (from Nigeria this time) showed up, plus an article on the top-ten things women look for in a dating profile (cool), and a few articles that actually addressed what I was looking for, but they’re from 2005 and 2010 (ancient in internet-time). Maybe research outlets don’t think women’s search trends is an interesting topic, or perhaps Google thinks that fashion and dating are the most important things women search for online.

But considering topics on “women empowerment” see nearly 21,000 searches daily, I’d say there are more things we care about besides fashion and beauty. Now if we could only stop Googling “how to get perfect skin.”