Santa Tracking Explained: Why NORAD & Google Show Different Locations & Gifts Delivered

Formerly partners, both Google and NORAD are going head-to-head this year in Santa tracking. Already, people are wondering. Why are they showing Santa in different locations at the same time? What’s up with Google showing fewer presents delivered than NORAD displays. Relax kids (or parents of kids). I have answers.

I don’t have official answers. I’m trying to obtain these, really. But the Google press office is closed. Over at NORAD, the press office is understandably in meltdown. Emails to the official PR address are bouncing, and the press telephone number goes to voice mail, which is full and can’t accept new messages.

Never fear. I’ve been tracking Santa tracking for years, doing an annual review of how things work. I think I can shed some light on the situation.

Santa Claus In Two Places At The Same Time?

First, note the screenshot above, which combines images from NORAD’s Santa tracker at the top with Google’s at the bottom. Both were taken at the same time.

NORAD’s Santa Tracker shows Santa over Russia and having delivered over 2 billion gifts. Google’s Santa Tracker shows Santa over Thailand and having delivered just over 600 million presents. Why the difference? Let’s talk who tracks and how.

NORAD’s Decades-Old Santa Tracking Technology

NORAD is the North American Aerospace Defense Command, a joint US-Canadian organization that tracks missile launches and objects in space.

It also tracks Santa, dating back to 1955, when the wrong number for a Santa tracking service was printed in a newspaper ad. NORAD’s number was listed by mistake, but it diligently reported on Santa’s location and has been at it ever since.

NORAD has an entire page explaining its Santa tracking technology, detailing how it locks-on to Santa using:

  1. 47 radar installations
  2. Satellites using infrared sensors to spot Rudolph’s nose
  3. High-speed Santa Cams
  4. Fighter jet intercepts

That’s a four-tier system honed to perfection over nearly 60 years.

Google Brand-New Santa Tracking System

Google is new to Santa tracking. From 2007 through 2011, it was plotting Santa’s location on Google Maps and in Google Earth based on data that NORAD provided. But this year, similar to how Apple began using its own data for Apple Maps, Google launched its own Santa tracking service using its own Santa location data.

Google hasn’t said where that data coming from. It did reveal that it constructed a “new route algorithm to chart Santa’s journey,” but how it gets data to feed into that algorithm isn’t explained.

My best guess is that Google is likely relying on Santa’s use of Google services. Santa likely has a phone or two that perhaps is tapping into things like Google Maps. Father Christmas might also be doing the occasional Google search. In particular, Google likely gets a handle on his location using:

  • Wifi hotspots
  • Cell towers
  • IP address

You know how you might be using Google Maps on your phone, and you push the “My Location” icon, and the map zooms to where you’re at? That’s done by looking at what cell tower is receiving your cell signal. It’s potentially one of the methods Google is using.

Now you know how you do that, and sometimes you’re shown a block or two or three away from where you’re actually at? Sometimes, cell tower location isn’t very precise.

NORAD Vs. Google Location

That’s what I think is happening here. I think that NORAD is getting a very precise, real-time signal on Santa’s location. Google’s location data is probably not as refined. Complicating matters is the fact that Santa moves very, very fast, He can’t be in two places at once. But he can be in two places almost at once, because he moves so fast.

By the way, there are privacy implications if Google is tracking Santa the way I suspect. My assumption, however, is that Santa has granted all the appropriate sharing permissions required for Google to report on his whereabouts. Santa is well-familiar with the need for privacy, even having a Santa privacy policy of his own.

Also noteworthy, NORAD seems to be tracking as arriving in locations around 3 hours ahead of Google. For example, NORAD put Santa over Beira, Mozambique at 9pm local time there. Google put Santa over Aktobe, Kazakhstan at Midnight local time there.

It might be that NORAD is somehow projecting Santa’s future location in an effort to help parents trying to usher their kids off to sleep. Personally, I long wished for this type of time-shifting, myself. Or perhaps Santa is moving so fast this year that NORAD’s systems are distorting the location. In the past, he was always spotted passing over particular places around midnight, by NORAD. Alternatively, maybe Google’s systems are lagging behind.

Gift Counts Vs. Gift Estimates

What about the difference in gift counts? I think it comes back to those radar stations. NORAD tracks objects in space that are very small, literally keeping an eye on things like gloves and wrenches. As of yet, Google lacks this type of extensive radar network.

My guess is that Google is trying to track presents delivered perhaps through an estimate, perhaps making an assumption at the number of gifts delivered on average to a home, then using that average to multiply against the number of homes it counts around the world through its Google Earth imagery.

In short, Google’s offering its best guess. It’s similar to how you do a search on Google. Ever done a search, been shown the number of results found, only to find that number may change considerablu when you got to the second page? Google also guesses at results count, trying to give you an estimate that’s close but not precise.

Then again, if you watch NORAD closely, sometimes Santa’s gift count keeps rolling over even when he’s flying across seas or oceans. Are the gifts just being dumped? It may be that NORAD is using some estimating of its own. I’ve also spotted the same thing happening with Google, too, so both trackers have some issues here.

You’ll find both the services here:

Where’s Santa Claus? The 2012 Santa Tracker List, From NORAD To Google, From The Web To Apps is our deeper review on Search Engine Land on how they work.

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays from those of us here at Marketing Land!

Postscript: Official statement now from Google: ”Although we’re using separate methods to track Santa’s journey, we’re excited that Santa is using Google Maps to guide his trip around the world.” That doesn’t explain much, of course! The Washington Post got a slightly different but funner statement:

“You’d be surprised at how speedy Santa is,” said spokeswoman Sierra Lovelace. “It may often seem like he’s in two places at once.”

Related Topics: Channel: Search Marketing | Google | Top News

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About The Author: is Founding Editor of Marketing Land. He’s a widely cited authority on search marketing and internet marketing issues, who has covered the space since 1996. Danny also serves as Chief Content Officer for Third Door Media, which publishes Search Engine Land and produces the SMX: Search Marketing Expo conference series. He has a personal blog called Daggle (and keeps his disclosures page there). He can be found on Facebook, Google + and microblogs on Twitter as @dannysullivan.

Connect with the author via: Email | Twitter | Google+ | LinkedIn



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  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100002222197479 Anthony HiLyte Williams

    Is this a joke? you can’t track Santa Claus, stop feeding young people bullshit.

  • http://twitter.com/sagerock Sage Lewis

    I still think it’s a cover up. They aren’t telling us something.

  • docbrody

    Google setting up a competing Santa Tracker is such a lame thing to do. What a bunch of d1ck heads.

  • http://www.studentshelp.info/ winfredable

    Google may be a terribly victorious behemoth technical school company & NORAD is that the implements of war for the foremost over-armed 1st-world country on this planet, and these a pair of entities ar wrangle regarding one thing that does not exist, on the national stage?

  • http://twitter.com/EricLayland Eric Layland

    If you add in Google’s (not provided) the gift counts are equal. It should be in the “low single digits percentage.” I’ve heard Avinash is working on a hack to identify the exact counts. It’ll be ready next year.

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    Love is in the air. A particular day in the calendar is marked especially for the lovers. this lovers’ special day is celebrated all
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