Google Earth A to Z: Navigation

Learning to manipulate the mouse and keys to control Google Earth 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 “show terrain” is checked in the options menu). 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.

mount st helens

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.

Navigating effectively in Google Earth will make your experience much better, and hopefully those tips will help!

About Mickey Mellen

Mickey has been using Google Earth since it was released in 2005, and has created a variety of geo-related sites including Google Earth Hacks. He runs a web design firm in Marietta, GA, where he lives with his wife and two kids.


  1. Mac users can see comments on a similar GEB post on 22 may 2012 covering differences in navigation using a Magic Mouse and a Mac keyboard.
    The ‘official’ Google Earth keyboard [navigation] short cuts for Windows/Linux and Mac are at ‘Google Earth > Help > keyboard shortcuts’ which is part of the basic features user guide, but there seem to be additional ‘hidden’ options.
    An example for Mac users is rotation by holding cmd whilst making the ‘mouse wheel’ movement on the Magic Mouse, forward for clockwise, back for anti-clockwise, [r] reorients to north.

  2. To zoom in and out I also use a method not desceibed here: hold right mouse button while moving mouse forward and backwards.

Leave a Reply