How to Use Google Earth



In her Aging With Geekitude series, self-professed “recovering technophobe” Erica Manfred writes about her adventures with technology and shares what she’s learned as she navigates the not-so-scary waters. 

Unless you’ve been living under a rock you’ve probably heard of Google Earth. Actually, under rocks is just about the only feature of the planet you can’t see on Google Earth.

When I first heard of Google Earth I had no idea what it actually was or what it could do, until my friend Wendy, who grew up in Peru, told me she spent nostalgic hours visiting the streets of her old neighborhood in Lima. I tried to download theGoogle Earth plugin when Wendy showed me where she grew up in Peru, but my computer at the time wasn’t powerful enough to run it. Since I had no desire to revisit Teaneck, New Jersey where I grew up, I didn’t bother until recently, when I got a new computer. (Most computers sold in the past five years can run Google Earth, and you can also download a Google Earth app for your tablet.)

If you’ve ever doubted the power of Google to take over the world, consider the fact that Google is creating what it calls a “digital mirror of the world.” Outfitted with custom cameras, Google’s cars (for mapping roads), tricycles (for parks),  trolleys (for museums, malls and other indoor public spaces), snowmobiles (for mountains), planes and people (for all the places that vehicles can’t go), along with underwater cameras, have already mapped most of the globe — in 3D.

What Exactly Is Google Earth?

Let me Google that for you: It’s a “a virtual globe, map and geographical information program that was originally called EarthViewer 3D created by Keyhole, Inc, a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) funded company acquired by Google in 2004. 

Google Earth lets you “fly” anywhere — from Timbuktu to the canyons of the ocean — to view satellite imagery, maps and whole neighborhoods in 3D. It allows you to virtually view the world and zoom in on any particular piece of it. Add Google Moon and Google Sky, and you can even fly around the universe.

You can start by viewing Earth from space and then zoom in on West 23rd Street in Manhattan or Main Street in Podunk, Iowa. Or you can zoom in on the craters of the moon or Jupiter. You can scroll around a neighborhood, following the streets and visiting different buildings.

One function of Google Earth is Google Maps, which I’ve been using every day on my phone to get me where I’m going. Google Maps is designed for on-the-go navigation — type in your location and destination, and it will give you turn by turn directions or tell you which subway or bus route to use (read more that here and get an explanation of the difference between Google Earth and Google Maps here.)

If you’ve tried to rent an apartment or buy a house recently, you may have used Google Street View, which is one of the “layers” on Google Earth, along with 3D imagery, oceans, roads, weather, borders, and more. I fell in love with the condo I’m currently living in because of the bird’s eye view I saw on Google Street View when I zoomed over the development’s buildings and pool on Florida’s Intracoastal Waterway.

Google Earth is an invaluable tool if you want to “visit” someplace without actually going there — a vacation destination, the town your kid or grandkid just moved to, someplace in the news. I used it a few years ago when I lived in upstate New York and was writing a novel, “Interview with a Jewish Vampire,” part of which took place in Miami’s Little Havana. My friend Lin Robinson used it to visit Yale University, where he was setting one of his books.

How to Use Google Earth

When you first open Google Earth, you’ll see a photo of our planet as viewed from space. From there you can use your mouse to zoom in on different continents and oceans, even other planets. You can put any address in the search bar and it will zoom in to that street. (You will not see the world in real time; you’ll be seeing photos that Google has taken over the past few years.)

For a detailed how-to on Google Earth, a YouTube video by provides the clearest, easiest to understand tutorial for beginners that I could find.  It gives you the basics to get started. From that point on, you need to experiment. Use your mouse to move around and scroll in and out of different views.

Even more helpful is Google’s User Guide, which has a detailed list of what you can do on the platform and instructions for “Five Cool, Easy Things You Can Do in Google Earth.” They include going on a world tour, accessing the Community Showcase of features created by other Google Earth users and viewing places like the Grand Canyon in 3D.

My Google Earth Experience

To test my proficiency with Google Earth, I visited my house in upstate New York and got choked up with homesickness when I saw the crystal clear picture of my street with the huge oak in the front yard. Google warns that the pictures are up to three years old, but I swear I sold that old Subaru in the driveway at least five years ago. I also tried to visit the apartment complex I grew up in and saw the street from above; but when I tried to zoom in to street view, it became blurry. According to Google, this might mean that they just don’t have high resolution imagery for this area yet.

Google Earth isn’t just for entertainment; it’s also used for a variety of worthy causes. reports that through the Google Earth Outreach program, several nonprofits are becoming more effective at fulfilling their missions: the World Wildlife Fund is using Google Earth to protect Sumatran tiger cubs; relief workers used it for crisis response after the 2011 earthquake in Japan; another nonprofit uses it to find and remove land mines. Even Brazil’s Surui tribe uses Google Earth — the tribespeople are mapping their home in the Amazon Rainforest.

11 More Ways to Use Google Earth

I asked my Facebook friends how they use Google Earth. Here are some of the best responses I got.

Stephanie Golden: Looking at places that are settings for novels or described in books, articles etc. You’d be surprised by how many places can be surveyed by the little yellow figure. [The “little yellow figure” is the icon you clickon in Google Earth to see Street View.]

Denise Franklin Terry: Looking at people’s houses when I am getting to know them. I guess you could call that blatant curiosity. Also when I am looking for a restaurant in an unfamiliar neighborhood, I can see what the neighborhood is like and what the place looks like from street level.

Gail Amos: For fun and to check out places I think I would like to travel to. Have changed my mind based on visuals.

Diana Feit: Finding anything you want near an address, from apples to zebras. [Just type in the zipcode and what you’re looking for.]

Debi Martin: I have used it to travel back in time, so to speak. I go to a place I used to live and by clicking the arrows, I walk the streets I used to walk when I was young. It’s as though I’m strolling down the street, taking in the view. Sometimes it actually can feel like I’m standing there looking around. Of course, a lot has changed. But Google Maps reminds me of what was once there and how I once lived. Maybe I just have a good imagination, huh?

Toni Kamins: Itinerary planning for my own trips and those of the cruise company whose land tours I work on. One drawback, some of the photos are several years old and don’t reflect things like current construction in an area or changes in retail outlets etc. Overall it’s a very useful tool.

Annette Mayer: I use it to “stalk” my ex hahaha. When I dated I used it to check out where my date lived.

Blair Bolles: Pretty much every returned Peace Corps Volunteer I know has used Google Earth to check out the place where they were posted. One friend was able to see that the chimney he had built was still standing.

Jamie Kamlet: I used it two weeks ago to find a trail I was going to hike that was not on any of the maps I had. The trail led to the exact neighborhood in southern California I needed to emerge onto from a desert preserve area above the houses.

Kathy Schnapper:  I use it to visit archaeological sites all over the world and, best of all, to move quickly and seamlessly between different sites to make comparisons. Wish that this treasure had been available back when I was teaching art history.

Judith Kerman: I’ve used it to see how the street where I lived in Queens looks today, and I used it when I was house hunting in Woodstock six years ago. My home street is totally transformed by vinyl siding, old trees gone and some porches, including mine, have been enclosed. A bit weird, in fact, to have it be so nearly unrecognizable. Also used it to look at a resort and the university campus where my group stayed in Senegal about 10 years ago — just to see how it compared with the way I remembered it.


Have you used Google Earth? What did you use it for?

See more Aging With Geekitude articles

Erica Manfred is a journalist, essayist and humorist who writes about everything from dentistry to divorce to fantasy fiction. Friend her on Facebook.



2 responses to “How to Use Google Earth

  1. What? Maybe I don’t get it, but I always, in my simple ways, could find any address, current or past with photos usually and map, directions, etc. I just go to my search browser and or About. com or many others and they bring all the info. a curious Gemini could ever want. This includes many “secret” places.

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