Santa Tracking with NORAD and Google Analytics

Tuesday, December 09, 2008 | 2:48 PM

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We write this blog post with what can only be described as holiday giddiness. First, we're writing it from the North Pole with the help of Santa's Elves (they are spell-checking as we write), and second, we've teamed up with NORAD, the North American Aerospace Defense Command, as well as Santa Claus himself. Where could this possibly be going? Well, NORAD is using Google Analytics on their incredibly popular NORAD Tracks Santa website!

As you may know, NORAD provides aerospace warning and control for North America 365 days a year. This U.S. military department is tracking what's going on up above (so you don't have to constantly crane your neck). And on Christmas Eve, you better believe NORAD is keeping a close eye on Santa's flight.

Why is this so important? Just ask any child. Children everywhere – both naughty and nice – want to know where Santa is on the 24th of December.

NORAD began tracking Santa's flight in 1955 when children started calling into a military phone number on Christmas Eve to find out where Santa was. Ten years ago, NORAD launched the website, which has evolved each year. A continuing partnership with Google started in 2006 – read about it on the Google blog. Last year, NORAD started using Google Analytics to record traffic stats for the website. They were very pleasantly surprised – the numbers were an early Christmas gift.

Preparation and Planning

The website rolls out in two phases. Phase one went live on December 1st, and lasts until Christmas eve; it features the history of the Santa Tracker, a countdown to take-off, updates from Santa's Village, and holiday-themed games – a new one released each day – which can be found under the Kids Countdown area - pictured here:

Phase two, on Christmas Eve, will display a map showing Santa's launch from the North Pole at 4:00a.m. MST and will track him in Google Map and Google Earth imagery, live and in real time, as he makes his trek around the world!

Initially, the Santa Tracking team at NORAD implemented Google Analytics last year because they simply wanted to see how many visitors came to the site. But they got a lot more out of it. We spoke with Major Stacia Reddish, NORAD Tracks Santa Program Manager, after Christmas last year. "For us, 2007 was a benchmark because we didn't have analytics data before. It will be really interesting and useful to compare last year's statistics to this year's." Last year, the website was featured in 6 languages and it literally got traffic from all over the world, which NORAD learned from Google Analytics. "In 2007 we had visitors from 212 countries and territories with the majority of traffic from the US, UK, and Canada," Major Reddish told us. "We logged almost 11 million visits!"

Last year's visits to NORAD's Santa Tracking site came from
almost
every country on the planet, denoted by areas in green

This year, they expect even more.

Major Reddish said that Google Analytics has been invaluable for planning and evolving the site. For instance, last year, the team made a goal to translate the site into at least one additional language for this year. But which language would be most helpful to visitors? Google Analytics reported that visitors from China spent twice as long on site as the average. So Chinese was chosen as the additional language option for 2008.

Analytics data has also helped with staffing projections for the site and for Christmas Eve. By seeing how many people clicked on the "contact us" link last year, for instance, NORAD could figure out how to scale volunteer, phone and computer needs for Christmas Eve. "Google Analytics was really helpful for our planning purposes since the traffic on the site is so big on December 24th," she said. "Last year, we could project what it would be like by the amount of traffic coming in before then. And it will really help as we staff up for 2008."


Both this year and last, the site was designed and built by Booz Allen Hamilton, another corporate sponsor. In addition to the overall traffic numbers, Google Analytics data helped them design the site. They used browser and connection speed data to optimize for visitortechnographics and they chose to hold over the site's most popular games, replacing those that got less usage.

The countdown to Christmas Eve

Even though the project is strictly for fun, a lot of effort is put in to get the word out and support the site. Last year, in the days leading up to the launch of the website, and then again before Christmas Eve, three press releases were issued as well as two media advisories. Finally, on Christmas Eve roughly 1000 volunteers report to Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs to help answer phone calls and emails from children asking where Santa is. Last year, over 90,000 calls were answered and over 10,000 emails were responded to on Christmas eve.

'Twas the night before Christmas

On Christmas Eve, attention on the site really kicks into high gear, with television news networks in the US and Canada including CNN.com, FOX national news, ABC, CBS, NBC, CTV, and their affiliates, cover the site live. Last year, because of Google Analytics, NORAD was able to add to the buzz on the 24th by giving reporters almost real time traffic statistics, updated hour by hour. They were able to enrich the story with details, including the fact that the time-on-site average had risen to 5 minutes.

Major Reddish raved about the geographic reporting. "The map overlay is so great. An Italian reporter asked us how many people came to our site from Italy, and we were able to tell him. He was impressed and decided to do a story. It's important for media to know where the interest is coming from, and it's also great information for our department."

This year, they're going to look at key performance indicators as well as the incremental usage the Chinese language generates. This data will help them make accurate projections for next year, when Santa gives a hearty, "Ho, Ho, Ho!" and launches into the Northern sky once again! We're sure NORAD will be prepared. But back to the important stuff: at time of this posting, according to NORAD, there are only 14 days, 11 hours, 47 minutes and 5 seconds to go until Santa gets flying, and counting! We hope you and yours enjoy every second.

Happy holidays from our team to yours!