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. Unlike a normal 2D, click-and-drag map, Google Earth mimics the globe with a spherical map and stunning graphics so that you can zoom and glide over all the oceans and cities of the world.

The free service can also be used to find driving directions, locate nearby restaurants, go on virtual vacations, or perform 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. The company that created it, Keyhole Inc., was founded in 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 usually 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 look like they have 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 on your web browser. However, you will 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 any other downloaded 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

Google Earth

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. You can also zoom in and out by selecting the + and - icons in the lower-right corner.

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.

Google Earth Map Styles and Layers

Google Earth Map Style

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, you can choose Map Styles to reveal only the information you'd like to see. From the menu on the left, select the Map Style

  • Clean: No borders, labels, places, or roads.
  • Exploration: Borders, labels, places, and roads.
  • Everything: All borders, labels, places, roads, transit, landmarks, and water.
  • Custom: Choose any combination of the above

Scroll down to the Layers section to further customize the map. You choose to turn on 3D buildings, animated clouds, and gridlines (longitude/latitude lines).

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

Google Earth Search

Google Earth lets you jump to a specific place automatically, without clicking and scrolling, via the search function. Select the magnifying glass icon to open a search field.

Most addresses require a state or country, but for most 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.

While older versions of Google Earth included a directions feature, you now have to use Google Earth Pro or switch over to Google Maps to find a route to a particular destination.

Pins, Presentations, and Projects

Google Earth Projects

You can mark places on the globe, create presentations, and draw lines or figures using the Projects feature. Select Add to project to save a destination and mark it on the globe. You can also select Add placemark in the lower-left corner and save the marker as part of a project. Select Draw line or shape in the lower-left corner to do exactly that.

All of your saved places will be located in the Projects tab, located in the main menu bar on the left.

Google Earth Voyager

Google Earth's touring and exploration features have been combined into the Voyager feature. You can use the feature to tour the world with a collection of map-based stories, with topics focused on travel, culture, nature, and history. New tours are added all the time, with games and quizzes available for students and interactive learners.

Google Earth Voyager

Google Sky, Mars, and Moon

Google Earth is more than just a map of our planet. With the desktop version of Google Earth, you can 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.

Screenshot of Google Mars in the Google Earth program
Jon Fisher