Google has released its long-anticipated geographic search tool, a new application that combines local search with satellite images and maps from around the globe.
Google Earth is a standalone application that's essentially an enhanced and upgraded version of its Keyhole 3D satellite imagery product. As Google has done with several of its past acquisitions, the company has also made the application free to all users, dropping its annual subscription fee for the basic version. Google Earth Plus with additional features will cost $20 per year.
Google Earth is designed to make it easy to "fly" to aerial views of many locations on the planet. Currently, the application has detailed imagery for the U.S., Canada and the U.K. and 38 major cities in other countries, as well as medium to high resolution terrain imagery for the entire world.
The application is a "console" with controls allowing you manipulate 3D satellite imagery of the Earth in a viewer directly above the controls. When you first start the application, your view is of the entire globe. You can either use the controls or Google Earth's search functions to zoom in on a specific location.
Google Earth has three primary search features: Fly To, Local Search and Directions, each accessed by buttons at the top-left of the application.
The Fly To feature accepts an address, place name, cross street or simple Latitude/Longitude coordinates and zooms you quickly in to the specified location, typically stopping at an altitude of about 3,000 feet above ground. From this point, use the controls to zoom, tilt, pan or rotate the view.
Checkboxes next to the navigation controls allow you to overlay lodging, roads, terrain, dining, geographical borders and 3D buildings over the satellite image. Even more overlays are available using the "layers" features, described in a moment.
Additional layers allow you to overlay data points of geographic interest over images. These include shopping areas, gas stations, stadiums, schools and churches, crime statistics, volcanoes... lots of interesting information, to say the least.
The Local Search feature works just like Google Local, accepting a business type and a location in search fields. Local search currently works for businesses in the U.S., Canada and the U.K.
Local search results are displayed with icons on the satellite image and as a list of text results beneath the search box on the left of the screen. Clicking a result opens a balloon pop-up with more information about the business, including options to get more local search results or driving directions to or from the location. You can also click a link to get a printable view of the search results from Google Maps.
The Directions search feature offers driving directions to and from places in the U.S. Canada, and western Europe. Detailed directions are displayed beneath the search box, and the viewer displays your route overlaid on an image. A very cool new feature lets you "fly" from your starting point to your location, allowing you to see exactly what your route looks like.
You can annotate locations with "placemarks" that let you attach notes to specific places. Simple placemarks allow you to write a brief description; Advanced placemarks let you change the style of icons and labels.
Google Earth allows you to save searches and placemarks as "my places" that work much like bookmarks. You can also create folders within the My Places folder, allowing you to pull together all the information you need for a visit to a specific city, for example, and be able to recall that information with a simple click of the mouse.
You can also share saved searches in an XML format called KML. You can email or share these KML files with other users. Be sure to check out the thousands of interesting layers and views have been created by the Keyhole Community, available for download in KML format.
Many of these views have been created by travellers annotating favorite destinations or individuals writing about the community they live in.
As mentioned, Google Earth Plus has a few additional features available to subscribers for $20 per year. These features include:
- Higher resolution imagery, for better prints or use in PowerPoint presentations
- GPS support, which can use data from GPS devices such as those made by Garman or Magellan
- More sophisticated annotation capabilities, with the ability to draw objects on the surface of the earth, highlight an area and so on.
To access these features, select the "upgrade" option from the menu in the free version of Google Earth.
Bottom line: Google Earth is an awesome application, blending the best of Keyhole's satellite imagery with Google's local search and mapping capabilities. Although it's most useful if you have a broadband internet connection, it's something you'll want to try even if you're limited to a slower dialup connection.
I'll be writing more about Google Earth soon, when I compare it with the other online mapping services that are available; stay tuned.
Want to learn more about Google Earth's features and how to use them? The extensive online help files offers in-depth information about all of the new program's features.
Want to discuss or comment on this story? Join the Google Earth Arrives discussion in the Search Engine Watch forums.
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