What Is Google Earth?

Fly nearly anywhere in this 3D maps application

Man silhouetted against globe
Adam Berry / Getty Images

Google Earth is a beefed-up map of the world. Instead of the normal 2D, click-and-drag map you're perhaps used to, Google Earth mimics the globe with a spherical map and stunning graphics so that you can zoom and glide over the oceans and cities of the world.

Beyond mere entertainment, Google Earth can also be used to find driving directions, locate nearby restaurants, go on virtual vacations, and do some serious research.

Google Earth isn't limited to just our planet; you can explore Mars, constellations, and the moon from the same program.

Google Earth's History

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.

Niantic Labs is also the company behind the Pokemon Go mobile app.

Google Earth Image Quality and Accuracy

Google gets images for Google Earth 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 remote areas are often blurry. There are usually dark and light patches marking different satellite images, and some of the images are several years old.

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.

Where to Download Google Earth

You can use Google Earth without downloading it, meaning that it runs straight in your web browser in seconds. However, you need Chrome in order to use it.

To use Google Earth on a computer that isn't running Chrome, or on Windows, Linux, Ubuntu, or Mac, you can install Google Earth Pro like a regular program. Doing this provides support for printing high-resolution photos, making movies, and importing for GIS data mapping.

Google Earth Pro used to be a premium service you had to pay for, but it's currently free for everyone.

Not coincidentally, many Google Earth features are also available on 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 Interface: Basic Controls

Screenshot of the Google Earth desktop program in Windows 8
Jon Fisher

Google Earth opens with a view of the world from space. There are two ways to change the current perspective and easily navigate the globe: with the on-screen buttons or with your mouse.

Clicking and dragging on the planet gently spins the globe. It moves just like items do on touch devices, where you can pull from left to right to rotate to a different area or push the globe up or down to see a different side of the world.

Using the middle scroll wheel or dragging and right-clicking simultaneously zooms in and out for close-up views. In some areas, the close-ups are detailed enough to make out cars and even people.

Clicking and holding the scroll wheel while moving the mouse is another way to rotate your perspective, which comes in handy if you're viewing 3D buildings.

On the right side of Google Earth are some on-screen buttons that also work to change the globe's position. The top control rotates the world, the one below it moves you around the globe, and the bottom controls are used to zoom in and out.

What Are Google Earth Layers?

Screenshot of layers in Google Earth
Jon Fisher

Google Earth can provide lots of information about a location — 3D buildings, border labels, photos, weather, images, and more — but viewing all of it at once easily clutters the map and makes it confusing to see any one thing at all.

To remedy this overload, the information is stored in layers that can be turned on or off. Some other layers include roads, Wikipedia entries, airports, subways, banks, grocery stores, and coffee shops.

To enable or disable layers in Google Earth, locate the Layers section on the left side of the program, and place a check in the box next to any layer you want to see or remove the check to hide the layer.

Some layers are grouped into folders. Turn on all items in the group by clicking the box next to the folder, or expand the folder and enable or disable individual layers.

Two layers are useful for creating a 3D globe. Terrain simulates the elevation levels so that when you tilt your view, you can see mountains and other terrain objects. 3D Buildings is a folder of a few other layers that, when enabled, turns on Photorealistic, Gray, and Trees.

3D buildings aren't available in every city, but advanced users can create and texture their own buildings with SketchUp.

Search and Get Directions With Google Earth

Screenshot of the search option in Google Earth
Jon Fisher

Google Earth lets you jump to a specific place automatically, without clicking and scrolling, via the search area on the left side of the program.

Most addresses require a state or country, but for some larger US cities, you only need to type the name.

The Google Earth search function uses location awareness, so it will automatically suggest places near your current location rather than businesses or landmarks all around the globe.

For directions, click Get Directions under the search box. You'll be given two text boxes to provide a start and end location. You can also type in the regular search box, like from:Tulsa, OK to:Las Vegas, NV.

Create Google Earth Bookmarks

Screenshot of placemarkers saved in Google Earth
Jon Fisher

You can insert virtual thumbtacks into Google Earth to mark places for easier access again later, such as your house or your workplace. All of your saved places are located in the Places area on the left side of Google Earth.

To do this, click the yellow tack icon on the top of the program, and then drag the icon around on the screen. Name it whatever corresponds to the location.

How to Take Tours in Google Earth

Screenshot of part of the Google Earth Pro Sightseeing Tour
Jon Fisher

Google Earth includes a sightseeing tour that takes you to various places of interest around the globe, like the Eiffel Tower, Grand Canyon, Sydney, the Forbidden City, and more.

What makes tours in Google Earth really neat is that the program takes you to each location automatically and then pauses so that you can explore that area. It even rotates around each landmark for several seconds so that you have a full 3D view.

To start the Google Earth sightseeing tour, locate the Places pane on the side of the program, click Start tour here, and then select the camera button on the bottom of that section.

You can find lots of homemade tours for sitting back and enjoying even more of Google Earth, and they work on the web version of the program, too. Visit Google Earth Voyager for some examples.

Google Sky, Mars, and Moon

Screenshot of Google Mars in the Google Earth program
Jon Fisher

Google Earth is more than just a map of our planet. You can also fly through space, examine Mars, and land on the moon without ever leaving the Google Earth program. You can switch to Sky, Mars, or Moon by clicking the planet icon on the toolbar at the top of Google Earth.

In these other Google Earth modes, the user interface is nearly identical to Earth, so you can turn layers on and off, search for specific landmarks, leave placemarks, and more.