How Google Became A Santa Tracker Tradition To Rival NORAD

Will future generations think of Santa tracking as synonymous with Google as past ones have thought of for NORAD?

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Tracking Santa’s location on Christmas Eve has been synonymous with NORAD for decades. It’s a tradition. But for future generations, I think there’s an excellent chance they’ll think of Google first, when it comes to knowing the whereabouts of Jolly St. Nick.

Such a change would have seemed inconceivable a few years ago. NORAD — the North American Aerospace Defense Command — has had a virtual monopoly on the Santa tracker business for decades. But in a short period of time, Google has risen as a strong challenger. Here’s the story of how that happened.

How NORAD Started Tracking Santa

NORAD began tracking Santa Claus nearly 60 years ago by accident. In 1955, an ad was published listing the the phone number of CONAD — NORAD’s predecessor – by mistake, rather than for a local Sears store doing a Santa promotion. The military division rose to the challenge and started issuing updates.

Norad Santa Original Ad1

The ad with misprinted phone number that launched a NORAD Santa tracking tradition (credit: NORAD)

It was a perfect fit. After all, who better to spot where Santa’s flying than a major operation dedicated to watching the skies. To me, it was also a nice change: the joint US-Canadian military operation not seeking out potential threats but rather providing welcome alerts for a highly anticipated arrival.

As a child growing up in the 1970s, I have fond memories of hearing the radio giving the latest NORAD reports about Santa’s location. When I had my own kids in the 2000s, they were delighted to check in on his location with me from NORAD through the web.

Then along came Google.

How Google Got Into Santa Tracking

If you’re looking for another perfect fit between an organization and Santa tracking, Google fills the bill nicely. After all, Google’s goal is to organize all the world’s information — to provide answers to all your questions.

“Where’s Santa Claus now” is one of the most asked questions on Christmas Eve. Huge numbers of children want to know — and Google’s job is to provide answers.

Unlike NORAD, Google didn’t get into the Santa tracking game by accident. Ten years ago — in 2004 — Google began offering a rudimentary Santa tracker. Practically no one knew about it or used it, since it was done by Google’s “Keyhole” mapping group.

Google tells the origin of its service here. The following year, Keyhole morphed into Google Earth. Santa tracking was offered again, and the audience grew from 25,000 in 2004 to 250,000 for Christmas Eve 2005.

The service ran again the following year, and the number tracking Santa increased to over a million, according to Google. That was helped by an unofficial partnership with NORAD.

google santa tracking 2007

One example of the NORAD-Google partnership from 2007

In 2007, NORAD formally partnered with Google. There was even a personal connection between the two organizations.

US Air Force Col. Harry Shoup — director of operations for CONAD in 1955 — took that first mistaken call that came in on a top secret line. In this great retelling by his daughter, he initially reduced the first child to tears who asked for Santa, thinking it was a joke. He quickly softened after learning about the misprint and ordered that callers be given updates on Santa’s progress.

Shoup’s granddaughter Carrie Farrell, years later, worked for Google — and announced the formal partnership to the world through Google’s blog.

Until this point, despite its growth, Google’s Santa Tracker had really been just a sideshow. It was one of many little Santa trackers out there, while NORAD was the main event.

I say this as someone who has been tracking the Santa trackers officially since that that same year and unofficially, as a father, for a few years before that. Each Christmas Eve, I have my own personal tradition. I write a review of the Santa trackers. For the curious who want some history, you can see them here:

2007 – 2008 – 2009 – 2010 – 2011 – 2012 – 2013

Pretty much, NORAD had crowded out other challengers. Sure, you could still find the odd web site or app here and there offering updates. But NORAD had really been it, if you wanted a serious, dependable service — until the split with Google happened in 2012. In Google’s place, NORAD partnered with Google competitor Microsoft.

No One Knows Why NORAD & Google Broke-Up

It’s never been made exactly clear why Google and NORAD went separate ways. Nothing was explained at the time. When I talked with both Google and NORAD for this story, neither had any detailed explanations.

norad google 2012

How the NORAD and Google Santa trackers looked in 2012, after the two split-up.

I’d assumed — as I’m sure many did — that there was some type of bidding war between Microsoft and Google over a NORAD contract, which Microsoft won. However, that’s not the case, according to NORAD.

The organization told me that it wasn’t a situation of “more money” being involved, nor apparently that there’s even a contract up for bid.

NORAD, I was told, works with a variety of corporate partners on the all-volunteer effort — and partners often change, depending on their availability. If Google wanted to be involved in the future, it certainly could.

“It’s all about who can help us,” NORAD spokesperson Canadian Army Capt. Jennifer Stadnyk told me.

Did Google Want Better Showcase For Its Own Products?

As best I can tell, the split — which both sides say was mutual — seems likely because Google wanted to do more in a Santa tracker to highlight its own products and services. That’s my read from this statement that Google gave me:

Google’s Santa Tracker acts as a showcase for many Google products, and you can see how this has developed over the last few years.

From last year’s integration of Chromecast in the Santa Tracker Android app (one of the first times casting was integrated into an app) to the Watch Face API we used to develop our Santa Tracker watch face for Android Wear.

Google’s Santa Tracker gives us a space to show what our developer tools are capable of, and also helps us improve those tools as we test them out.

Will Google Eclipse NORAD For A New Generation?

The year the split happened, it wasn’t clear to me — and I think many others — that it would be permanent. Even when both NORAD and Google ran separate services again in 2013, it felt like there was still a chance they might reunite in the future.

As we go into the third straight year of being apart, it’s pretty clear that NORAD and Google aren’t getting back together. Where there was once one major Santa tracker, now there are two — and potentially, Google will be the one that matters to an entire new generation of children.

Sure, NORAD still has a big advantage right now in being so well known. It even has First Lady Michelle Obama regularly supporting it by answering calls.

But if you don’t know about NORAD Tracks Santa, you’ll likely turn to Google and search for terms like “Santa tracker” to find a service. Do that right now, and you get pointed to Google’s own Santa tracker:

Google Santa Tracker

You also get that special promotion if you search for “Santa tracking” or even just “Santa,” as happened last year.

Huge numbers of people search for these types of terms every Christmas Eve — they always trend. That gives Google’s own tracker a big advantage over NORAD.

By the way, if you search for “Where’s Santa” right now, Google does provide a direct answer pointing to NORAD:

where's santa 2014

But make that “Where is Santa,” and you get the Google Santa Tracker promotion. I expect “Where’s Santa” will eventually change to be the same.

Has Google’s Tracker Already Hurt NORAD?

Enough future speculation. Can we tell if Google Santa Tracker has already impacted NORAD Tracks Santa?

Well, before the split in 2011, the NORAD Santa tracker handled 18.9 million unique visitors from around the world, in the month of December. In 2012, when the split from Google happened, that actually rose to 22.3 million. But last year, unique visitors dropped to 19.6 million. It was the first drop since NORAD began reporting unique visitors in 2008.

Web site visits aren’t the only indicator of success, of course. NORAD has had growth among its social followers, plus people are accessing the information it provides through mobile apps. But Google might be capturing some of those who previously would have gone to NORAD.

As for Google’s traffic, it won’t give any figures other than to tell me “millions” used its tracker last year.

Choice Can Be Sad, But Also Good

There’s a big part of me that wishes Google had gotten out of Santa tracking when it split from NORAD. The NORAD Santa tracker brings back memories from my childhood; it brings back memories of me being a father with young kids checking in on Santa’s progress. In contrast, Google feels to me like an upstart interloper messing with my nostalgic memories.

But maybe Google’s a welcome alternative to others. It’s not uncommon to see the occasional complaint about a NORAD “Santa Cam” video showing Santa being accompanied by fighter jets. Some might prefer a Santa tracker that’s not connected to a military organization. Of course, some might not feel one connected to a giant company is necessarily preferable.

Part of me is also sad that when I go to NORAD’s own site, I get a big Internet Explorer icon in the top right corner, which effectively opens up an ad for Microsoft. I guess I feel it’s too blatant. Of course, complaining about the commercialization of something Christmas-related, I suppose, is kind of useless.

By the way, there might be major Santa trackers for countries outside the US and Canada that I’m not aware of, that dominate the way NORAD does in North America. I do know from living over a decade in the UK, there wasn’t anything local to rival NORAD Tracks Santa there. Nor have relatives or friends I’ve known in other countries suggested any.

Thanks To The Santa Trackers

Overall, I’m thankful to the many people who are involved with both operations, who work hard to make children smile on Christmas Eve. Both Google and NORAD say their operations are all-volunteer efforts.

I’m always especially moved when I make my annual call to the NORAD phone line to test that it really works. It’s usually answered by a service person, people who already give up so much, giving up a little more on Christmas Eve to make others happy.

You’ve got two great services to choose from on Christmas Eve — or you can use them both. That’s great to have. So check them out: NORAD Tracks Santa and Google Santa Tracker.

And on the day before Christmas, we’ll have our usual recap of how to get the most out of both trackers. Watch for when it appears on our sister site Search Engine Land, via our Your Guide To Santa Trackers page on Christmas Eve.

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily MarTech. Staff authors are listed here.

About the author

Danny Sullivan
Danny Sullivan was a journalist and analyst who covered the digital and search marketing space from 1996 through 2017. He was also a cofounder of Third Door Media, which publishes Search Engine Land, MarTech, and produces the SMX: Search Marketing Expo and MarTech events. He retired from journalism and Third Door Media in June 2017. You can learn more about him on his personal site & blog He can also be found on Facebook and Twitter.

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