Updated Monday, December 24, 2012 at 09:01 PM
WASHINGTON — Tech-savvy girls and boys, of both the naughty and nice variety, had two main ways to track Santa Claus online as he began his epic journey across the globe Christmas Eve. But perhaps they shouldn't look too closely as the two Santa trackers — sponsored by archrivals Microsoft and Google — offered strikingly different data points on the progress of Saint Nick.
By midafternoon in the Washington, D.C., area, the Microsoft-sponsored NORAD's Santa Tracker website had Rudolph and his reindeer friends pulling the sleigh over Romania. The Google-sponsored Santa Dashboard, meanwhile, had them over Madagascar.
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 largesse. 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 Wi-Fi 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."
For Microsoft, its support of the sleek, well-executed NORAD Santa Tracker offered the company a rare opportunity to crow, even though it took a keen eye to spot the references to the company for its Bing search engine amid the maps charting the path of his sleigh. Bing gets only a fraction of the lucrative search engine traffic enjoyed by Google. And Microsoft's operating systems for phones and tablet computers are less popular than those made by Google.
Microsoft has been aggressive, though, in seeking to close the gap while pointing out Google's supposed shortcomings in a series of high-profile ads about how the search engine has "Scroogled" consumers by showing only paid links for shopping queries.
"Looks like Google has applied their patented 'scroogled' algorithm to their Santa tracker this year, or that Bing users have been very, very nice," said Frank Shaw, Microsoft's public relations chief. "We know the NORAD Bing tracker is showing Santa's actual location and is delivering three times the amount of Christmas presents. So, kids better hit the sack when they see him getting close to their neighborhood on NORAD's site."
This year, NORAD expects more than 1,500 volunteers to help with the effort, said Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, NORAD's director of public affairs. Volunteers take two-hour shifts, and the command relies on partnerships to provide the all-day service without using taxpayer money. NORAD keeps up its normal operations during its Santa watch and houses its volunteers in a separate, nonclassified facility on its base in Colorado.
Davis said the switch of sponsorships was amicable. "We want this to be done as a community service and avoid doing anything that would make it seem commercialized," he said.
Sullivan suggested that children ignore the rivalry and the puzzling anomalies it seems to have produced regarding Santa's travels and gift-giving proclivities, much as they long have to other Christmas mysteries — such as how he delivers packages to homes without chimneys.
"All those who believe know that Santa can be in all places and doing lots of things at the same time," Sullivan said. "And that probably is as it should be."