Google Earth Pro:
Basics for Research Use

Install & Settings (1/3)

Google Earth (Pro)

Google Earth recently came with a new online version. Nevertheless, the focus of this review/tutorial is on the older Desktop version of Google Earth Pro. The main reason for this is the ability to use the Google Earth pro desktop program offline. This is a great advantage if you are in a remote place or an area with no decent internet coverage. Furthermore, in my personal opinion, Google earth Pro is still easier in organising your data. It is a very useful tool to visualise data, and it’s free and user-friendly. I have used Google Earth myself. For example, during the White Wilderness Project (Slovakia) we used it to give the volunteers an overview of the study area, to show what we have found so far, and sometimes for planning as well.
Although Google Earth is usually not used for in-depth scientific analysis, it is a good tool to discover your study area, upload GPS tracks, etc. … Google Earth also has a PRO version freely available for non-profit users. Google Earth Pro has a lot of interesting features and this small tutorial will guide you through the basics possible with Google Earth Pro. The tutorial is based on a Windows configuration.

If you want to know more about the differences between Google Earth and Google Earth Pro:

In this series, you will learn a couple of different skills using Google Earth. The first one will be relatively simple and handles about the installation and general way of using Google Earth with some tips for using it faster. After that, I’m planning to get more into the data import and visualization. At some point, this tutorial will be available on YouTube as well.


You can install the Google Earth Pro Desktop version by clicking on the link below and follow the steps.
Once you’ve installed Google Earth Pro, a new pictogram should appear on your desktop. To open Google Earth Pro, just double click on the icon. In this tutorial, you will learn more about the interface, how to use it, and how to set up some preferences in the settings of Google Earth Pro.

Interface – overview

When you first open Google Earth Pro, you will be welcomed with an introduction window and some tips. If you are not interested in this, you can tick off the option “show these tips” on the bottom of the pop-up screen. On the top, you have a menu bar (1) and a toolbar (2). In the sidebar, there is a search box (3), Places (4), and Layers (5) to play with. On the bottom, you will have a Tour guide (6) with interesting places to check out. Finally, on the top right corner, you have the navigation tool (7).

Google Earth Pro welcome screen


It is a good training to start using mouse and keyboard shortcuts to navigate, but here I will also describe to navigation tool in the top right corner.

Tilt and rotate
Click and drag on the ‘N’ to move the direction of North, use the arrow around the eye to change the view.
Tilt: SHIFT key + scroll mouse-wheel or drag by moving your mouse.
Rotate: CTRL key in combination with moving your mouse.

Change view
Use the arrow around the hand to move in any direction.
Mouse: left-click and hold, drag/move your mouse while holding the left-click.
On your keyboard you can use the arrow up and down, left and right to change view.

Google earth Pro navigation
tilt google earth

Google earth Pro navigationZoom in and out
Double-click anywhere on the map to zoom in on that spot. If your mouse has a scroll wheel, you can use this to zoom in and out (Keep ALT key pressed in for zooming by smaller increments). Another option is the have your cursor on the screen and right-click and hold. Now move your mouse towards and away from you while holding the right-click until the right zoom level is reached.
Keyboard: use + and – key (Keep ALT key pressed in for zooming by smaller increments)

Overview of shortcuts. In my opinion, the most important is R to reset tilt and compass view.


Google Earth Interface


Google Earth Toolbar

Each Icon has its own function. The use of Placemarks, Polygons, and Paths are the most useful. Additionally, the ruler is a good tool to estimate some distances, areas, etc.

Google Toolbar detail

In a later tutorial, you will learn how to import data from a GPS, but here you find information on how to add data manually:

Clicking on the Placemark icon will result in a popup window and a placemark on the map. You can drag the placemark to the right spot or enter the coordinates manually. Additionally, you should give the point a name, add a description if you like, and in the tab ‘Style, Colour’, you can change colour and size. On the right side of the name, you can change the icon.

Draw polygon to create a polygon of your study area, grid, area of interest, etc… The naming procedure is similar as with placemarks. You can undo a previous click by right-clicking.

Draw walked transects or other line features with the Path feature. The naming is similar as with placemarks. You can undo a previous click by right-clicking.

The created placemarks, polygons and paths are appearing in the sidebar under ‘Places’. We look into this a bit later on.

The ruler gives you the option to measure some distances. This can go from a basic line, a path or a 3D path, to more sophisticated area calculations of polygons. The 3D path is useful for measurements in an area with a lot of elevation differences. 

Search coordinates, places, etc. … probably less important for conduction research. But for example, you can search for ‘Antwerp central station’ or ‘Slovak Paradise’. Definitely play around with the zoom and tilt options when zooming into ‘Slovak Paradise’, or move to the Tatra mountains for more impressive views.

Under Places, you will find all the places you’ve created, whether it’s a point (placemark), a path (line), or a polygon. You can organize your Places by putting them in folders. To create a folder, right-click on ‘My Places’ –> Add –> Folder. You can use the same procedure for creating subfolders, but clicking on the folder where you want to create a subfolder. You can add and remove folders, you can reorder them by simply drag and drop. For renaming a folder, you can right-click and click ‘rename’ or simply select a folder and press F2.

Data can be shown or hidden by simply selecting or de-selecting the check-box next to the item. “My places” are places which will show up at the start of Google Earth. Places in ‘Temporary Places’ will disappear after Google Earth is closed down.

If you want to save ‘My Places’ or part of it, just right-click on the folder and click ‘Save Place As’. Additional, if Google Earth takes a long time to load, it’s worth saving some of your places/folders and delete them from ‘My places’. You can save your places as a kml or a kmz file. Kmz is a compressed for of the kml.

As a general obvious rule: The more layers you use, the slower Google Earth will load.
There are lots of options and each project probably has its own favourable layers. Here is a short list of the most useful layers for research purposes:

  1. Borders and Labels: Choose your preference for showing borders and layers… if needed
  2. Roads: Good to have an overview of roads in the area
  3. Gallery: a good way to explore the study area for existing hiking trails, 360° views etc. (Also, the Photos Layer is good for exploration). Although once everything is set up, these layers just slow down your application.
  4. Terrain: check this for a better 3D view. If you like the elevation to appear more pronounced, you can modify the ‘Elevation Exaggeration value (Menu: Tools –> Options –> 3D View). The default value is 1, but you can set it to anything between 1 and 3, including decimal numbers. A common setting is 1.5, which still has a natural elevation appearance, but makes it more pronoun/obvious.
    • Extra layers increase loading time in Google Earth, especially the terrain layer. So it might be worth turning it off when experiencing lower performance.

The menu bar with File, Edit, View, Tools, Add, and Help are quite straightforward. I will go over some of the options in the next section about setting up the right environment.

Set up the right environment

At the start-up, Google Earth Pro standard shows the ‘Start-up Tips’. You can uncheck the box at the bottom of this popup screen ‘Show tips at start-up’. You can always get them back by going into the menu to help –> Start-up Tips.

Google Earth (Pro) has a lot of different tools/bars to show and hide. You can change what’s on your screen in the Google Earth interface by going to ‘View’ in the menu. Here you can check/uncheck your desirable tools and bars.

Google earth Set up the right environment

Ticks at ‘Toolbar’ and ‘Sidebar’ are quite useful. The only reason for not showing them is if you want to record your screen or need a larger map view. The Full Screen (F11) option is useful if you want to let your windows taskbar disappear.

Show Navigation’ is about the appearance of the navigation tool at the top right corner. ‘Automatically’ means the navigation tool will light up when you scroll over it, otherwise, it will turn black and ‘disappear’ in the background. The other options are straightforward.

The Status Bar gives you a little bar at the bottom right of your screen telling you the altitude, the latitude and longitude of your cursor and ‘eye alt’, which is the altitude Google Earth is currently viewing the Earth from.

Google Earth Status bar

Grid: this will add a layer with latitude and longitude.
Overview Map: this will show an overview map of the earth indicating where you are currently navigating.
Scale Legend: this will create a scale bar at the bottom left of the map.
Tour Guide: this option will show some interesting places and information on the bottom of your map, not that useful for scientific research, more for discovering an area.

Atmosphere: this is more important if you look at 3D earth and look at mountain ranges or anything else with the sky in the background (Atmosphere ticked: light blue sky, Atmosphere un-ticked: dark sky)
Sun: this is more important if you are making tours. Include day/night, sunrise, sunset etc. …
Historical images: this will show collection of images from the past, but I haven’t used this option up until now.
Explore: this explore tool gives you the ability to leave the earth and get a view on mars or the moon.

RESET is a very useful tool. Google Earth likes to show places in ‘the perfect way’ with specific angle and orientation. As researchers, mostly like a more standard approach here you can reset the “North up” view and the “Top-down” view, or do both.

Useful shortcuts:

North up                                N
Top-down                              U
Reset tilt and compass      R

Make this my start location: this will create a waypoint where Google Earth will start when opening the software, you can edit it. This is discussed further at creating and moving waypoints.

Now we’ve set up our environment and we are almost ready to start. First, it’s time to put some preferences into Google Earth. Therefore, click on Tools in the menu and click options. There are a lot of options, but we only going to focus on a few.

google earth options

In the first Tab “3D View” it’s important to indicate your preferences for how to show latitude and longitude in the ‘Show Lat/long’ and indicate your preferred ‘Units of Measurements’. The coordinate system is important if you want to manually enter coordinates, whereas the measurement unit is important if you want to measure distances etc.
If you ‘ve set your preferences, just click ‘Apply’.

More information about coordinates:

Feel free to explore the rest of the Options, but here some additional settings which are useful to change:
Tab “Navigation”: in the Navigation box, tick ‘Do not automatically tilt while zooming’. This is useful if you like the 90° view at most times. Google Earth is quite visual and likes to pre-set some parameters to give the user the best visual experience. This means Google Earth is often going to tilt your view, whereas I prefer to have a perpendicular view on the world unless I change it myself. 
Tab “General”: Here you can change the language if you would like to.

So far, the basics about the Google Earth Pro environment. In the next tutorial, I will focus more on how to export/import data. The most important part is that you play around with it and get used to all the different features. For now you can check already out the differences between a GPS device and a GPS Smartphone App.

The next tutorials will handle about data import and data visualisation. Other requests you can post in the comments. Subscribe to the mailing list to keep up to date with new tutorials and other news.

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