While some people call it a “map”, Google Earth is far more than that. It’s actually a huge database of images, text, and location data, all of which makes it possible to virtually visit millions of places on the planet.

Earth is also a wonderful tool for helping students learn geography, world cultures, history, other languages, and so much more. In addition, the Projects section allows them (and anyone else) to collaboratively build tours and share that learning.

This page is a short introduction to the main sections and basic tools of Google Earth. I will also link to other tutorials and video that go into more detail about the many features.

screenshot of the Google Earth interface

When you open Google Earth by visiting https://earth.google.com, you’ll see a screen similar to the one above. The central display will show the same location as the last time you used the site, so it probably won’t look exactly like this.

Although Earth will work in the Firefox, Safari, or Edge browsers, Google recommends using their own browser, Chrome. Based on personal experience, I’ve found a few minor issues and quirks with the other browsers. Earth also works very well on Chromebooks.

While it’s not necessary to have a Google account to use Earth, you will need to be logged into one to use some features such as projects.

A grand tour of the interface, beginning in the upper left corner.

Menu – Many of the tools in the general interface are also available under here. In addition, you’ll find a switch to turn on and off the photos layer that’s available in most locations. The menu is also where you’ll sign into the Google account you want to use with certain features.

screenshot of the Google Earth main menu

Search – You can search for locations, Voyager tours, and Projects. As with other Google search tools, it’s very flexible but can also return some strange results if you use the wrong keywords.

Voyager – This is Google’s collection of tours and other interactive features, many built by partners including National Geographic, BBC, and NPR. New content is added regularly.

I’m Feeling Lucky – Click the die and Earth will take you to a random location on the globe. This is a fun way to start a class or conversation.

Projects – This section allows you to create a tour using the resources of Google Earth similar to those found in the Voyager section. For more on building projects in Google Earth, start with this introduction.

Map Style – When viewing a location, you have the option of showing all kinds of information including place names, borders, roads, and more.

Measure – Simple tools for measuring distance between locations or the perimeter and area of a space.

In the lower left corner are tools for marking a specific location and for drawing simple figures at a location. Both are used in conjunction with the Projects section and require that you be logged into a Google account.

In the lower right corner are various tools for navigating in Earth. Clicking the little man allows you to see where Street View is available.

Finally, is the main screen, displaying your current location on Earth. Navigating in that view is as simple as click and drag, and scrolling in and out. However, there are many tricks you can use to make it easier to get around and those details are covered in this tutorial.