Important Basics for Google Earth

[IMPORTANT NOTE: this post was initially written for Google Earth versions 4.0 through 4.2, but has been updated with tips covering Google Earth 5.2. For more info, you can read tips on navigating from the GE User Guide.]
Mount St. Helens in Google EarthIf you are new to Google Earth (GE), or looking for ways to improve how you interact with GE, then this entry may be of help. Additional resources are referenced below. Note: this blog entry assumes you are using Google Earth 5 or higher. For tips on Google Earth 4, you can view the Google Earth 4 user guide.
Learning to manipulate the mouse and keys to control GE is crucial to getting the most out of sightseeing the Earth. The first important thing to know is how to zoom in closer to the Earth. You have many ways to do this: double-click your mouse button (left button, if you have multiple buttons, to zoom in, right button to zoom out); use the mouse scroll-wheel (if you have one); use the + and keys; or use the PAGE UP or PAGE DOWN keys to zoom more quickly. You can also use the navigation gadgets – the “+” and “” buttons with slider on the far upper-right to change your altitude. The mouse scroll-wheel is probably the favorite method of most typical GE fans. All of these methods adjust your altitude above the Earth’s surface. You can see your height above sea level in the lower right of the GE viewing window. You can move the Earth to position it where you want to see by clicking a point with the left mouse button and slide the cursor to the middle of the viewing window.

At first, many people don’t realize Google Earth is much more than a map with aerial and satellite photos attached. GE uses data from NASA Space Shuttle missions which provides 3D terrain data for the entire land surface of the Earth. Let’s demonstrate this.

Click on this link to go to GE and fly to Mount St. Helens. Beautiful view right? But, try this: hold your SHIFT-DOWN key combination and watch GE tilt your view so you can see Mount St. Helens as a 3D mountain (if you don’t – check to see that the “Terrain” layer is turned on). Very cool right? SHIFT-UP will tilt your view back up. You can also use the slider control at the upper right of the navigation control for tilting. A nice tip: hit the “u” key to tilt back straight up automatically. The “r” key will reset to north and tilt up.

An easier way to tilt and pan your view is to click and hold the middle mouse button or scroll wheel button (those of you who have a Mac with one mouse button have to use the above key or navigational control techniques – but, I would recommend getting a 3-button mouse). While you’re holding the middle button if you move your mouse forward and backwards it will tilt the view. Side to side will pan your view around the point you are looking at.

While some of the tips no longer apply, this short 2 minute video tutorial from Google can help cover some of these navigation basics.
Related Resources:

About Frank Taylor

Frank Taylor started the Google Earth Blog in July, 2005 shortly after Google Earth was first released. He has worked with 3D computer graphics and VR for many years and was very impressed with this exciting product. Frank completed a 5.5 year circumnavigation of the earth by sailboat in June 2015 which you can read about at Tahina Expedition, and is a licensed pilot, backpacker, diver, and photographer.

PLEASE NOTE: Google Earth Blog is no longer writing regular posts. As a result, we are not accepting new comments or questions about Google Earth. If you have a question, use the official Google Earth and Maps Forums or the Google Earth Community Forums.


  1. Great tips!

  2. Great tips! Myself, a Windows user, I find the arrow keys in combination with Shift and Ctrl are great for navigating, zoom, rotate, and tilt. If you also press the Alt key, then the motion slows down, which is very handy when you are zoomed in close to the earth’s surface.

  3. I am using earth a lot and having a hard time controlling zoom with my scroll-wheel. One click often takes me WAAY too far out or in, and it’s not consistant, so I waste a great deal of time zooming in and out to get where I want to be. Is there somewhere in preferences that this can be corrected? or is it my mouse? Any help would be appreciated…

  4. How often does google earth update what we can see. I have had google earth downloaded for about 8 months, and have placemarks, but it’s always the same thing. nothing changes. and its always blurry. please tell me if i’m doing something wrong, or if there’s something i need to know. any help will be appreciated

  5. Jackson Mangan says

    I’m new to GE and I’m still learning the hard way to understand the basics. I’ll study the materials that you’ve provided in here.
    I’ve downloaded the free GE software, but then it didn’t match with Win32 application. What’s the problem?

  6. Hi
    I understand google earth isnt in real time. What is the earliest date you can go back to and can you see people, if so, How?

  7. Sharon:
    The earliest date that can be viewed changes at each location. Some areas have no historical data while others go back into the 1930’s and 1940’s. (San Francisco, German cities, and Dhakar for instance)
    To see these images and to know how far back you can go at a location, use the Timeslider feature. In the current version of GE it looks like a clock, and the button is sitting in a row of icons over the top of the main viewing window. The slider bar will show you what years have images for you to see.
    Here’s a Google tutorial page:

  8. I still hope that, someday, GE offers a “navigation option” that i would explain as “only vertical and horizontal navigation” – in order to make it possible to keep the imagery always oriented like, e.g; Google Maps does. It’s boring (for me, i mean) to have to click on that small “N” in the up-right part of the screen to put north back to it’s place, so the imagery is oriented again. To use only the four arrows while navigating is too slow. There could be, at least, a HUGE button where to click on, to replace the imagery back to the usual N-S, W-E orientation!

PLEASE NOTE: Google Earth Blog is no longer writing regular posts. As a result, we are not accepting new comments or questions about Google Earth. If you have a question, use the official Google Earth and Maps Forums or the Google Earth Community Forums.