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Posted on March 7th, 2013

G-FAQ – How Have Google Earth & Google Maps Changed the Geospatial Industry?

While many of us in the geospatial industry may use Google Earth and/or Google Maps on a frequent basis, I am guessing far fewer of us have stopped to consider their impact on our industry. My paid career in the geospatial industry started in 2005 which happens to be precisely when both Google Earth and Maps were launched. Since that time, I have heard many perspectives of their impact on the geospatial industry – some neutral, some positive and, of course, some negative. Thus, in this two-part edition of the Geospatial Frequently Asked Question (G-FAQ), I offer my feelings on the topic with as many hard facts as I could rustle up.

With this in mind, the March and April G-FAQs will address this set of core questions:

How have Google Earth and Google Maps changed the geospatial industry? How and why were they created? How are Google Earth and Maps different? How will they change in the future?

To start off this discussion of Google Earth, Google Maps and the geospatial industry, let’s look at the roots, development and future of these twin mapping utilities.

The Roots of Google Earth and Google Maps

When you think about ‘how it all started,’ you have to put your thoughts in the context of what Google is and how it makes (the most of its?) money – i.e. advertising. When you consider that singular point, it becomes apparent that the geospatial database of addresses, street names, cities, counties, etc. that we see in Google Earth and Google Maps also drives the location-based searches that help Google sell you the right product at the closest location. In fact, if you have advertised on Google Adwords, then you likely discovered that geographic filters help to effectively target your various ad campaign budgets. While this is simply my take on the roots of Google Earth and Maps, I did find this evidence in a Google press release from June 28, 2005 which seems to validate my opinion:

Last October Keyhole and Google joined forces to integrate satellite imagery with Google search technology in a single product. Now we’ve landed on Google Earth.

A Google search I performed on “men’s haircut boulder co,” and you can see that it is well targeted – especially the second entry, Urban Pearl, which is less than 3 blocks from my house!

Keyhole Corporation was acquired on October 27, 2004 by Google for the technology they developed to visualize and stream GIS, imagery and other spatial datasets to remote users. A US-based startup, Keyhole was formed in 2001 and their best known product, Earth Viewer, was to become the stand-alone program Google Earth. While Keyhole no longer exists, its technology is still at the backbone of Google Earth. For instance KML, or Keyhole Markup Language, which is a way to express geographic information (i.e. latitude and longitude coordinates) in a standardized format that can be read by both humans and machines. In fact, KML is the language that a Google Earth KMZ file is based around.

Google Maps can trace its roots to Sydney, Australia and the company, Where 2 Technologies. Also acquired in 2004 by Google, their mapping technology was a stand-alone application akin to Earth Viewer. When Google purchased the company, the Where 2 development team was instructed to integrate the technology with a web browser. Given the timing of the Keyhole and Where 2 acquisitions, it indicates that Google always intended to have both a stand-alone and web-based application driven by the same geospatial database of addresses, road, imagery, etc.

Google Earth Versus Google Maps

While these twin mapping applications maybe driven by the same geospatial database, they are not identical twins. First and foremost, Google Earth requires that users download and install a stand-alone program to access the spatial database. Google Maps on the other hand works inside Internet Explorer, Chrome, Firefox, Safari and many more web browsers making it easier to load; especially if users, for instance in a corporate environment, are restricted from installing new applications on their computers.

What Google Earth lacks in accessibility is made up by the robust features you can only access inside the stand-alone program. For instance, with Google Earth users are able to:

  • Measure distances and areas
  • Tilt the view to any angle
  • Create and load KMZ/KML point, line and polygon files
  • Add custom imagery overlays
  • Access historic imagery in some locations
  • Toggle on and off a wide variety of spatial data layers
  • See photos of a location that other users have uploaded

In many ways, Google Earth is intended as a replacement for or perhaps compliment to more powerful mapping applications like ArcGIS and MapInfo. While Google Earth lacks many of the features you can find in ArcGIS, it is free which is a huge advantage to many users! Google Maps on the other hand seems to be linked closely with online Google searches which have a location element, such as queries for movie theatres, hair dressers and restaurants.

Major Milestones and the Future of Google Earth and Google Maps

While Google Earth and Google Maps are distinct applications, as they share the same geospatial database, their development into the popular mapping platforms they are now is an intertwined story. The development of Google Earth and Maps started in October 2004 with the acquisitions of Keyhole and Where 2 Technologies. On February 8, 2005, Google Maps was turned live but it was not until April 4th of the same year that imagery was added – with much of the high-resolution imagery coming from DigitalGlobe’s 60-cm color satellite, QuickBird. And then on June 28, 2005, Google Earth was launched. During mid-2008, it was announced that 50-cm color imagery from GeoEye’s GeoEye-1 satellite would join the high res data provided by DigitalGlobe. In fact, the launch vehicle that took GeoEye-1 into space had a Google logo on the side. On October 27, 2008, Google Earth for the iPhone and iPod Touch was launched and by October 5, 2011 there were more than 1 billion combined downloads of the desktop and mobile application.

For those of you that are regular users of Google Earth and Google Maps, you can likely predict where these applications are headed with their constant additions of more street views and 3D models. It is clear that Google is hoping to extend their current ‘flat-world’ applications to immerse users in a virtual mapping experience. In the near future, expect to see these trends continue:

  1. More ground-level views – as Google has developed a mobile backpack that is lighter (about 40 pounds) so photographers can map areas not possible with the older, heavier cameras.
  2. More 3D places and tours – by purchasing and outfitting their own aircrafts with multi-look angle cameras, Google now has the imagery required to create photo-realistic 3D models.
  3. More high res images – collected by Google’s own fleet of aircraft that will be exclusive to these mapping applications.
  4. Mobile offline downloads – smart phones are more than a fad, they are here to stay and Google will capitalize on this by allowing mobile users to download imagery for the places they plan to go without a 3G/4G network as GPS still works in these locations.

In our next edition of G-FAQ, we pick up this discussion of these twin mapping applications, and until then, happy GIS-ing!

Do you have an idea for a future G-FAQ? If so, let me know by email at

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Brock Adam McCarty
Map Wizard
(720) 470-7988

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