What Is Google Earth?

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In essence, Google Earth is a map of the world on steroids. You can zoom and glide over stitched together satellite photos of the world. Use Google Earth to find driving directions, find nearby restaurants, measure the distance between two locations, do serious research, or go on virtual vacations.

Google Earth is a free download from earth.google.com. Even better, you can also download Google Earth Pro for free, which you can use to print high-resolution photos and create movies.

Not coincidentally, many Google Earth features are already available in Google Maps. Google Maps has been incorporating features from Google Earth for years now, and it's likely Google Earth will eventually disappear as a separate product. 


Google Earth was originally called Keyhole Earth Viewer. Keyhole, Inc was founded 2001 and acquired by Google in 2004. Founding members Brian McClendon and John Hanke remained with Google until 2015, when McClendon left for Uber, and Hanke headed up Niantic Labs, which was spun out of Google in 2015. (Fun fact: Niantic Labs is the company also behind the Pokemon Go mobile app.)


Google Earth can be downloaded as desktop software for Mac or Windows. It can be run on the web with a compatible browser plug-in. Google Earth is also available as a separate mobile app for Android or iOS. 


Google Earth desktop is available in two versions. Google Earth and Google Earth Pro. Google Earth Pro allows advanced features, such as high-resolution printing and vector imports for GIS data mapping. Previously, Google Earth Pro was a premium service you had to pay for. It's currently free. 

Google Earth Interface

Google Earth opens with a view of the world from space. Clicking and dragging on the planet will gently spin the globe. The middle scroll wheel or right-click dragging will zoom in and out for close-up views. In some areas, the close-ups are detailed enough to make out cars and even people.

If you pass over the upper right-hand corner of the globe, the small compass will turn into the larger navigation control. Click and drag the circle to turn the map. North on the compass will move accordingly. Click on the arrows to move left or right, or use the star in the middle as a joystick to move in any direction. The dial to the right controls zoom levels.

Tilted View

You can tilt the globe to have a perspective view and move the horizon line up or down. This lets you view close-ups as if you were just above them, rather than viewing straight down. It also comes in very handy with the 3-D Buildings. This view is best with the Terrain layer turned on.


Google Earth can provide a lot of information about a location, and if you were to view it all at once, it would just be confusing. To remedy this, the information is stored in layers, which can be turned on or off. Layers include roads, border labels, parks, food, gas, and lodging.

The layer area is on the lower left-hand side of Google Earth. Turn on layers by clicking on the checkbox next to the layer name. Turn off layers the same way.

Some layers are grouped into folders. Turn on all items in the group by clicking on the checkbox next to the folder. Expand the folder by clicking on the triangle next to the folder. You can use the expanded view to select or deselect individual layers.

Terrain and 3D Buildings

Two layers are useful for creating a more three-dimensional globe. Terrain simulates the elevation levels, so when you tilt your view, you can see mountains and other terrain objects. The 3D Buildings layer lets you zoom through cities, such as San Francisco, and fly between buildings. Buildings are only available for a limited number of cities, and they are only available in gray, unshaded shapes (although there is additional textured building info available for download.)

Advanced users can also create and texture their own buildings with Sketchup.

How to Search Google Earth

The upper right corner lets you search for any address. Most addresses require a state or country, although some larger US cities only require the name. Typing in a full address will zoom you to that address, or at least near it.

Bookmarks, Driving Directions, and Tours

You can put a virtual thumbtack in the map to mark places of note, such as your house or your workplace with detailed labels. You can get driving directions from one point to another. Once the driving directions have been calculated, you can play them back on a virtual tour.

Google Mars

In Google Earth, you'll notice a set of buttons on the upper right corner. One button looks a bit like Saturn. Press the Saturn-like button and select Mars from the drop-down list. This is the same button you'd use to switch to Sky view or to switch back to Earth.

Once you're in Mars mode, you'll see that the user interface is nearly identical to Earth. You can turn information layers on and off, search for specific landmarks, and leave Placemarks.

Image Quality and Accuracy

Google gets the images from satellite photos, which are stitched together to make a larger image. The images themselves are of varying quality. Larger cities are usually sharp and in-focus, but more remote areas are often blurry. There are often dark and light patches marking different satellite images, and some of the images are several years old. Images are not labeled with the date the picture was taken.

The image stitching technique sometimes leaves problems with accuracy. Road overlays and other bookmarks often seem like they’ve shifted. In reality, the way the images were stitched together may have made the images shift position slightly. Either way, it is not surgically precise.

The Center of the World

The traditional center of Google Earth was in Kansas, although now users see the center of the globe begin from their current location.