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December 27, 2008

How Google Tracked Santa in 2008

If you have a child who still believes in Santa Claus, chances are you know about the NORAD Santa Tracker.

NORAD is the bi-national U.S.-Canadian military organization responsible for the aerospace and maritime defense of the United States and Canada. NORAD’s Santa Tracker began in 2004, shortly after Keyhole technology was acquired by Google and the “Keyhole Earth Viewer” was launched (a precursor to Google Earth). Back then it was called the “Keyhole Santa Radar” and only paid subscribers to Keyhole had access.

By December 2005, Keyhole had become Google Earth and free access meant that Santa’s audience had become a lot bigger. With Google’s acquisition of SketchUp 3D modelling software in 2006, Santa’s journey took on a whole new dimension and was viewed by over a million people.

In 2007, Google created a site for Santa’s progress at and became NORAD’s official Santa Tracking technology partner by tracking Santa in Google Earth. To make Santa’s journey even more interesting, a Google Maps tracker and YouTube videos were integrated into the journey as well. Several million viewers stretched Google’s servers to the limit as they watched Santa arriving in several different locations around the world, with commentary in six different languages.

This year, Google upgraded their server capacity and Santa got a makeover too. In addition to the “Santa Cam” video footage for many locations, geo-located photos from Panoramio were viewable in Google Maps for each of Santa’s stops that didn’t include video. The NORAD team also included a few new ways to track Santa including Google Maps for mobile and updates from “Bitz the Elf” on Twitter via @noradsanta.

This Christmas, I would hazard a guess that nearly 10 million people used the NORAD tracks Santa web site to track Santa’s progress around the world from the North Pole as he made a total of 315 stops starting with Providenyia, Russia and ending with Lihue, Kauai, in Hawaii. Families lucky enough to be located in New Zealand (like mine) were among the first that Santa visited in his epic journey.

Thanks Santa, Google and the NORAD team for bringing smiles to kids of all ages this Christmas.