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 arch-rivals Microsoft and Google -- offered strikingly different data points on the progress of Saint Nick.
By mid-afternoon, 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 about 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. But the Google-sponsored tracker had a far lower 770 million -- an output suggesting Saint Nick was still in a recessionary mood.
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 variations caused 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 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 Mr. Sullivan said the precision offered by NORAD's satellites likely is superior, offering it the ability to lock onto the sleigh's position within a matter of inches.
He also guessed that Google was using an algorithm to estimate the gifts delivered, while NORAD might be able to identify individual gifts, and perhaps even stocking stuffers.