Google Earth: Constructive Criticism

Google Earth is a powerful and widely adopted tool for geographic applications. It’s long history, free usage and association with Google has made it ubiquitous. Because of this it is common all over the world for the layman to use as a geographic application. No other software even comes close to Google Earth’s market share.

However, I feel that it is unfinished and stale. The software is stuck in development and no important changes have been added in years. The most recent change is making a browser only version.

A web only application is the wrong direction. In anticipation of Earth Day in April of 2017, Google announced a browser version of Google Earth. This seems to be the direction that Google has taken this flagship product. The non-browser local OS version has been stuck in version 7 since 2012.

The browser version of Google Earth is rich with shiny imagery and slick exploration tools, but it is very thin on anything that can be used in a professional environment. It’s great for the armchair world explorer and that’s okay. But for a geospatial professional it is not very useful.

But let’s ignore the browser version for the scope of this article. In it’s current iteration, it’s highly unlikely that a browser application will be useful in a production environment.

Where Google Earth Needs Improvement

Google Earth actually has a lot going for it. It is widely adopted and the KML/KMZ formats are portable and easy to share. It is much easier managing one file than a whole directory of shapefiles. Google Earth also loads up quickly and you can start fast. You usually don’t have to deal with a multitude of coordinate systems and projections.

However, Google Earth needs improvement. To begin with, I want to take a look at my own geospatial workflow. I currently do a lot of fieldwork. This means I need accurate information on the ground. The working environment also means doing things in awkward environments: on tailgates of trucks, in cabs of vehicles, coffeeshops, hotel rooms, rest stop picnic tables and other unexpected places. Efficient and practical user interfaces are essential.

Google Earth is often used to create maps in the office and sent to the field via KMZs. Sometimes I use this on a tablet, but mostly I work with a laptop because I prefer a computer with a proper keyboard and more options.

  • Lack of keyboard shortcuts

There needs to be a better way to manage frequently used commands. I am a heavy user of the folder structure of ‘my places’. There are a few keyboard shortcuts as seen here. But these are basic and insufficient. I would like to be able to create new directories, traverse the folder structure and other things without using the mouse.

  • Satellite Imagery Base Layer

The satellite imagery base layer is beautiful, there’s no denying how fascinating it is to explore the globe on Google Earth. That said, in production it is not necessary. It increases bandwidth usage and slows load times. The imagery is distracting and blends in with features that you might add to the map. There needs to be an option to change to a Google maps style layer.

  • Lack of practical tools

There are a plethora of tools that are available on QGIS and ArcGIS that are not implemented in Google Earth. Even simple tasks like batch renaming and keyword based selections are notably absent.

There are no processing tools. Wouldn’t it be great if we could drop polygons, point shape files and run simple processing algorithms on them? Say add population data on one layer, and color the polygons based on the data. Nothing like that exists on Google Earth.

  • Clunky Layers

The layers included on Google Earth are not customizable. It seems that they are the default for all users.

I’d like to be able to use layers in a hierarchical structure. I’d like to be able to change the colors, line thickness and prominence of road features, labels, administrative areas etc.

 


 

It’s time for Google to take a second look at Google Earth. These are just some of the ideas I have. It’s likely that software engineers could take a look and find even more features to add. This is a flagship product from Google. It shouldn’t be forgotten and ignored.