The variations were even more mysterious when it came to Christmas gift distribution. The Microsoft-sponsored NORAD tracker had the number at 2.8 billion, putting Santa on pace for what could be a record output even by the standards of his legendary largess. The Google-sponsored tracker, however, had a number far lower, in the vicinity of 770 million — an output suggesting that Saint Nick was still in a recessionary mood and may be teetering close to his own “fiscal cliff,” with a frightening crevasse of austerity looming below.
Veteran Santa Tracker analyst Danny Sullivan — whose SearchEngineLand.com covers the rivalry between Google and Microsoft, operators of the two most popular search engines — guessed that technological differences probably were causing the confusion.
NORAD, the North American Aerospace Defense Command, has tracked Santa since 1955, when a misprinted ad gave a number for Santa Claus that instead rang the command’s red phone, more typically used for national security crises. A fast-thinking Air Force colonel began offering updates on Santa’s progress whenever children called the number.
Google sponsored NORAD’s Santa tracker from 2007 to 2011, but Microsoft took over the project this year, providing mapping technology and cloud services to help power the site. Google responded by creating Santa’s Dashboard for this Christmas season, but Sullivan said the precision offered by NORAD’s satellites likely is superior, offering it the ability to lock onto the position of the sleigh within a matter of inches.
“They’ve been doing it for almost 60 years,” Sullivan said. “If you want to go for the most accurate location, you probably want to go with NORAD.”
He said Google likely relies on alternative technology, such as tracking Santa’s in-sleigh WiFi signal, causing a possible lag in showing his exact location. Sullivan also guessed that Google was using an algorithm to estimate the number of gifts delivered, while NORAD might have the ability to identify individual gifts, and perhaps even smaller items such as stocking stuffers.
Sullivan said Google’s tracker more effectively integrated mobile apps than the one sponsored by Microsoft, and he predicted that Google, which often launches its new products as unfinished beta versions, would likely improve Santa’s Dashboard in Christmases to come.
Google declined to comment on why it no longer sponsors the NORAD Santa Tracker but said the variations in flight path resulted from mysterious elements of sleigh-related magic. “You’d be surprised at how speedy Santa is,” spokeswoman Sierra Lovelace said. “It may often seem like he’s in two places at once.”