Google 2012 Profiteers

Slate's Culture Blog
Nov. 9 2009 11:50 AM

Google 2012 Profiteers

Alongside images of modern cities fractured like cracked ice, or a colossal Jesus statue toppling down on helpless hordes, posters, billboards, and trailers for Roland Emmerich's upcoming action film, 2012 , invite you to Google 2012 to learn more. Doing so calls up the film's official Web site, as well as its IMDB and Wikipedia entries. But since 2012 is not only the name of a movie, but also the year that—according to certain interpretations—the Mayan calendar predicts the world will end, Googling 2012 further summons a slew of amateur scholars, fearmongering opportunists, and fly-by-night profiteers, all of whom are seeing Web traffic skyrocket as the release date nears.

Sponsored Links—sites that chose 2012 as a keyword in Google's paid advertising scheme, AdSense—include a numerologist , survival kits of canned goods and bagged soup, the University of Metaphysical Sciences , a New England environmental group , and " survival land " for sale in Montana and Wyoming. The site Prophecy News Watch has used 2012 as a keyword since 2004 (in fact, most of the mentioned sites had previously employed the term), but site rep Kade Hawkins said Google impressions have increased tenfold in 2009, spiking to nearly 3 million in October alone. An estimated 1 percent of those impressions yield a click-through to the site.

Other sites are seeing increased action, no thanks to AdSense but simply because Google's matrix ranks them high for the search term 2012 . John Kehne, whose Web site www.December212012.com is a cheery depot of apocalyptica that maintains a running countdown to the big date and a roster of "celebrity believers" like Lil' Wayne and Montel Williams, said he moved to a more powerful server to accommodate the new traffic. Australian Robert Bast, who since 2000 has slowly published chapters of his book, "Survive 2012," on his Web site , has seen an increase in unique visitors from 5,000 per day to 20,000, though some days it's been as high as 80,000. "The free promotion of my site via Sony was nice," he said via e-mail, referring to 2012's global distributor. "But you never know, the idea for the movie may have begun from a visit to my site." Bast was joking—but it's possible that his site and others like it inspired the marketing campaign if not the film itself.

Sony's marketers chose a deliberately diffuse method for drumming up interest in 2012. A more precise search term, like "2012 The Movie," would have better directed traffic to Emmerich-related sites. But in this case, imprecision is good currency, because by sharing attention and traffic with crackpot sites, Sony draws attention to the existing paranoid hysteria and makes the film seem like a more significant cultural event. Likewise, in addition to the alarmist-sounding official home page, www.Whowillsurvive2012.com , Sony has created a network of six satellite sites, all launched during the past year, that deftly blur the lines between the film's fictional world and actual armchair paranoia, given names like Corruptiontheory.com and Thisistheend.com (easily mistaken for the Church of God's The-end.com ). One of the dummy sites, Instituteforhumancontinuity.org , mixes fictional conceits like a human lottery system and boutique personal bunkers with links to real-world organizations like the Alliance to Rescue Civilization and even a Guatemalan real estate agency. Down this rabbit hole, it can be hard to distinguish between true believers and hustlers, survivalists and Sony, but all are happy to take your money. 

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Eric Hynes is a New York-based journalist and film critic.

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