Storytelling with maps using Tour Builder

Tour Builder uses the Google Earth plugin for its 3D map. However, because some major browsers (including Chrome) are removing or reducing support for web plugins Tour Builder added a 2D mode using the Google Maps API in May 2015. This tutorial focuses on Tour Builder in 3D mode. Most of the features available in 3D mode are available in 2D mode, unless otherwise noted.


Google Tour Builder is a web-based storytelling tool that lets you easily create and explore stories and places around the world. Based on the Google Earth plugin, you can create a tour of any subject you like, zooming in to show the places where events took place, and easily integrating the story’s text, photos and videos. Your tour will fly users from one place to the next along the storyline of your tour, immersing them in the relevant places using Google Earth’s imagery and the custom content you provide.

This tutorial will introduce you to Tour Builder and walk you through the process of creating and sharing your own tour.

Before You Begin

In order to complete this tutorial, you will need some text, photo and video content to add to your tour. You can use your own text, photos and videos, or you can use the sample content provided by our friends at the Jane Goodall Institute (JGI). Just download the zip file below and extract the contents to a folder on your desktop. (530k Zip file)


To use Tour Builder and create your own tour, you will need a computer with internet access and ideally a web browser which supports the Google Earth Plugin.

Click here for more information about the Google Earth Plugin and a list of platforms which currently support it. If you do not have a web browser which supports the Google Earth Plugin, then you may use Tour Builder in 2D.

Let's Get Started!

Access Tour Builder by pointing your browser at the URL below:

In this section, we’ll take a look at the home page and all of the things you can do with Tour Builder.

Tour Builder Home page

The first page you will see is the Tour Builder home page. Here you can explore existing tours, start creating your own tour or access tours you've created in the past. It will look like the screenshot below.

screenshot of Tour Builder home page

Signing In

It’s always a good idea to sign in to Tour Builder with your Google account and it is required if you want to do anything more than explore public tours in the Gallery. To sign in, click the Sign in button in the top right-hand corner. You can sign in with a Gmail account, a Google Apps account* or any other email address that you have used to sign up for a Google account and password. Once you have signed in, you will see the My Tours and Shared Tours buttons.

* Note for Google Apps account users: you will have the option to share tours with individuals, or publicly, but you will not have the option to share a tour with only your domain. Also, some Google Apps account users may have issues with videos uploaded to Picasa not being visible publicly. If you see this issue, talk to your Apps account administrator.

Tour Builder Sign In button

Go ahead and sign in now.

Collaborative editing

If you want to be able to edit a tour with a team of people, we recommend that you create the tour with a shared account that everyone can sign into, but make sure only one person edits at a time or you risk overwriting each other's changes.

Home button

The Home button looks like a small house and is available in the top left-hand corner on most Tour Builder pages. You can click the Home button to get back to the home page.

My Tours

Click the My Tours button in the top left-hand corner of the home page.

The My Tours button brings you to a list of tours you have created. On this page you can see all of your tours. If it’s currently blank, don’t worry; by the end of this tutorial you’ll have at least one tour you created on this page.

For each tour, you get three links: Preview, Edit and Delete. Clicking Preview will show you the tour as a user would see it, in view-only mode. Edit will bring you to the editing interface where you can add to or edit the content of your tour. Clicking delete will delete your entire tour… so be careful!

My Tours button

Shared Tours button

Go back to the home page and click the Shared Tours button

The Shared Tours button brings you to a list of tours that have been shared with you by other users. If nobody has shared a tour specifically with you, this page will be blank. If there are tours here, you will be able to click on tours to view them.

Shared Tours button

Gallery button

Go back to the home page and click the Gallery button.

The Gallery button will bring you to a list of tours that have been published publicly by other users. This is a great place to explore fascinating tours about amazing stories and places. Take some time to check out a few of the tours for ideas on how to create your own.

Gallery button

FAQ button

The FAQ button will take you to a page that answers frequently asked questions about Tour Builder, including some background on the product, answers to technical questions and a link to provide feedback.

View A Tour button

The blue View A Tour button on the home page will open a featured example tour for you to explore. The View a Tour section of this tutorial will walk you through a tour and show you how to navigate and explore the map and the content.

View A Tour button

Create New Tour button

On the home page you’ll see two red buttons labelled Create New Tour and Create A Tour. Clicking either of these buttons will start the process of creating a new tour. The Create a New Tour section of this tutorial will walk you through the process of creating a tour.

Create New Tour button

View a Tour

This section will walk you through Tour Builder, explain all the different parts of a tour and give you tips on how to navigate the various pieces of content. If you are already comfortable with viewing tours in Tour Builder and you just want to create a tour, you can skip to the next section: Create a New Tour.

To get started with viewing a tour, click the Tour Builder logo in the top left-hand corner of your window to return to the home page, if you’re not already there.

Open a Tour

To open a tour that we can explore, either click the blue View A Tour button to open the featured tour or click the Gallery button and click to view one of the tours available there. I'm going to open The Beginning of Team Rubicon tour from the Gallery for the examples below. This tour tells the story of a group of Marines and how they started a disaster relief organisation.

Example Tour in the Gallery

Tour Introduction

When you first open a tour, you will see the Tour Introduction. On the left is a vertical list of cards representing the locations on the tour, with the Introduction at the top of the list, selected in red. Just to the right of the list is the tour’s introduction content, including the title, description and photos. On the right is Google Earth, zoomed out to an overview of the tour. You can click on the map to pan and zoom around any time you like.

screenshot - tour introduction

Take a moment to read the description and look at the photos.

Locations and Navigation

Now that you've read the introduction, it’s time to go to the first location on the tour. Each location shows the next piece of the story, with a specific map view, text description and usually some photos or video.

There are three ways to navigate between locations in the tour: by clicking the Back and Next buttons at the bottom of the content panel, by clicking on location cards in the locations list or by clicking on location markers on the map. The best way to explore a tour is usually to follow the storyline intended by the tour’s creator, using the Next button. But let’s try all of the options so that you’re familiar with them.

Use the Next Button

To go to the first location, simply click the Next button at the bottom of the content area.

next button

You should now see the first location, "Jake's House", selected in red in the Locations list, and the text and image content for the first location in the content area. The Earth will have moved to zoom you in to the first location on the map. This is the home of one of the members of the team, and the content describes a bit about his past.

screenshot of location one

Select from the Locations List

To go to the next location, click the second location in the locations list. You should now see the second location card selected in red, the content panel showing "Will's House" and the map flying to the new location. You may have noticed that there was a line on the map connecting the locations.

screenshot of location two

Select a location on the map

To go to the third location, let’s try using the map. Zoom out by using the scroll wheel on your mouse or by clicking the zoom-out control on the map, until you can see numerous tour location placemarks on the map. Click one of them to see that it will start zooming you to that location, and will update the content on the left to tell you about that location. Can you find the location called "Hurricane Sandy", which has a placemark near New York City?

screenshot of location three

Viewing Photos and Videos

Locations can have one or more photos and videos associated with them, and it’s easy to explore them.


Small versions of the photos are shown in the location content panel. To view a larger version of a photo, click the expand button (4 small arrows) in the bottom right of the photo. To get back to the tour, simply click anywhere outside the photo or press the Escape key on your keyboard.

viewing a photo

If there are multiple photos or videos available for a location, hover your mouse over the photo and you will see arrows on each side of the photo. Click these arrows to scroll through the available photos and videos. This also works in the full-size view, where you can also use the arrow keys on your keyboard to scroll through the photos.

scrolling through photos


When a video is associated with a location, you will see a red Play button on the video. Click the button to expand the video, and then again to start playback. If there is more than one photo or video, you will see the arrows that allow you to scroll between them.

playing a video

Explore the Map

At any point in your exploration of a tour, you can stop and explore the locations on the map. Simply zoom in further to see more detail or zoom out and pan around to see the surrounding areas and get a better understanding of the location and the context of the places around it.

map navigation controls

The easiest way to pan the map is by using your mouse to grab the map surface and drag it. You can also use the four directional arrows in the onscreen controls, or the arrow keys on your keyboard to pan the map. If using your keyboard doesn't seem to work, try clicking on the map first to make it the focus of your keyboard controls.

You also have many options for zooming in and out. To zoom in, you can double click anywhere on the map or double right click to zoom out. If you have a mouse with a scroll wheel, simply click on the map and then turn the scroll wheel to zoom in and out. You can also use the on screen zoom control or the page up and page down buttons on your keyboard.

To tilt the view, you can use the onscreen tilt controls, but it is often quicker and easier to use your keyboard by holding down the Shift key and using the up and down arrows (to tilt around the centre of the map view), or hold down the Ctrl key and use the up & down arrows (to tilt around the current camera point of view).

You can always press the R key to return to the straight-down, north-up view.

Don’t be shy about exploring the map and clicking on any placemarks you find to see where they lead.

If you want more information about navigating the map in Google Earth, check out these articles:
- Navigating in Google Earth (see the "Using a mouse" and other sections at the bottom)
- 3D viewer navigation (for all of the keyboard shortcuts)

Create a New Tour

Now it’s time to create your own tour. We will walk you through it and help you tell a short story by taking your viewers to several locations and adding some description text, photos and videos. You can use the content provided by the Jane Goodall Institute at the top of this tutorial to tell a story about chimpanzees, or you can use your own content.

Starting a New Tour

On almost every page in Tour Builder, you should see a red Create New Tour button in the top right-hand corner. You can also return to the home page by clicking the Tour Builder logo in the top left, and find the red Create A Tour button in the centre of the page.

create new tour button

Click the red Create New Tour button to start creating a tour.

You should see the page below, asking for a name for your tour and the author’s name (that’s your name or your organisation’s name). These will show as the title of the tour and the byline under the title wherever the tour is listed.

let's get started dialogue

Fill in the Tour Name and Author name fields and click the blue Create Tour button. Don’t worry, your tour is completely private until you decide to share it with others.

For this tutorial I'm going to use a tour name of "Jane and the Chimps" and my pen name, "Bill Shakespear". Click the Create Tour button when you are ready.

Editing the Tour Introduction

Now you are in the editing page for the Tour Introduction. You will see that the name and author you just entered are listed here. You can edit them if you wish.

Adding a Picture

Let’s add a photo to the introduction page. We’ll use the photo: jane_peak.jpg from the zip file of content you downloaded in the Before You Begin section above.

introduction add photo

Under "Select an Introduction Picture", click Add a Photo. You will see the "Select a photo" page, with options to choose a photo from your albums, to upload a photo, search the web for images or select an image by URL. Choose Upload photos.

select a photo page

On the page that appears, you can select an existing album or create a new one. For this tour, let's just use the default. Now, you can either drag the photo from your computer onto that page or click the blue Select photos from your computer button to go and find the jane_peak.jpg photo to upload. Once you have uploaded the photo and returned to the Tour Introduction editing page, a small version of the photo should appear there. Don’t worry, it will be larger in the viewer.

Introduction (What’s it about?)

The Introduction box is where you can type descriptive or introductory text for your tour. This should explain what the overall tour is about. This box has basic formatting options available, including bold, italics, underline, bullet lists, indentation and clickable links. There is also a Tx button which will clear all formatting.

Type some text in the description box. You can copy & paste this:

Jane Goodall is one of the best known naturalists and conservationists in the world. Her work revolutionised our understanding of chimpanzees. She started the Jane Goodall Institute, which works for chimpanzee conservation across Africa.

Also, try adding a link to a website such as the JGI site:

introduction text box

Editing Tour-Wide Options

On the introduction screen, there are a number of options that impact the entire tour, including how the lines are drawn between locations and which layers are shown on the map. The sections below will show you each of these.

Type of Story

The Type of Story option determines how the locations you define for your tour are connected by lines on the map. There are five options, as shown below.

type of story options
  • "Story 3D" - The locations are connected, in the order they appear in the list, by 3D lines which arch into the sky from one location to the next on the map.
  • "Story 2D" - The locations are connected, in the order they appear in the list, by flat lines which stick to the surface of the earth.
  • "Hub 3D" - The locations are all connected to the first location in a hub and spoke pattern, with the first location as the hub and 3D lines arching out from there to each of the other locations.
  • "Hub 2D" - The locations are all connected to the first location in a hub and spoke pattern, with the first location as the hub and the other locations connected to it with flat lines on the surface of the earth.
  • "Disabled" turns off the lines and means that the locations will only be shown as placemarks on the map.

Let’s choose the default: "Story 3D".

Path Colour

The Path Colour lets you select the colour of the lines connecting your tour’s locations on the map. Click the drop-down to see the options and, if you want a colour other than the standard yellow, go ahead and select it.

path colour drop-down

Map Style

The Map Style section lets you select which basic layers to show on the Google Earth map view. Options include Borders & Labels, Roads, 3D Buildings and 3D Trees (only available in certain locations). You can select whichever you like. For this tutorial, let's turn them all on except for Roads.

map style selector

Map Overlay Options

At the bottom of the panel you will see a line that says "Add a KML/KMZ by URL". This allows you to add a geographic dataset as an overlay for the tour. For example, if you have your own map of location points, or state polygons which you want to show on the map during the entire tour, you can add it here. There will be similar options for adding data layers for each individual Location you add, but any data layer you add here in the Introduction section will be visible for the whole tour.

Adding a KML map overlay requires that you have a KML file with the data you want to show. Any KML or KMZ file supported by the Google Earth browser plugin should work. You will need to upload it to a publicly accessible location on the web, and paste in the URL for the file.

If you are using My Maps, you will need to use the KML URL for your map. To get this, copy the URL of your map, which looks like this:
...and change the "edit" to "kml", like this:

map overlay options

Setting the view

For the locations you will add next, you can define the map view associated with each location. For the Tour Introduction, this is not an option, since Tour Builder automatically chooses an introduction view for the tour based on the locations you create.

Saving your work

There is a Save Now button in the top right-hand corner when you are in Edit mode. You can click it occasionally while you are editing, to save your work. Once you click the button, it will tell you when the tour was last saved. Tour Builder will automatically save your work from time to time but, if you make a major change and don’t want to risk losing it, just click Save Now.

Save now button

If you want to see what you have created so far, click the Done Editing button to go to viewing mode. You can always switch back to editing by clicking the Edit button in the top right.

your tour introduction so far

Adding Locations to your Tour

Now that the introduction and tour-wide options have been set up, you're ready to add some locations to your tour. If you’re not in Edit mode, click the Edit button in the top right.

Edit button

On the left, find the blue + Add Location button and click it to set a new location.

add location button

Mark your first location

When you click the + Add Location button to set a new location, you get two options for placing the point on the map. You can either search for a location or manually drop a pin on the map.

new location form

Search for a Location

To search for a location, type the location into the search box and you will see a list of results appear as you type. When you see the result you want, click it or, if it’s at the top of the list, just press Enter to select it. The map will fly to that location and show the marker on the map.

add search result to tour

Try searching for a few locations to see how it works. Now search for "Bournemouth, UK". When the map flies you to Bournemouth, hover your mouse over the search result and click the blue Add to Tour button to add this location to the tour.

Drop a Placemark

The other method for adding a placemark is to place it on the map manually. To do this, click the Drop Placemark button, then click the location you want on the map, then click the blue Add to Tour button. We’ll walk you through this for the next location.

drop placemark on map and add to tour

Don’t worry if you don’t get the location exactly right the first time, you can always drag the marker to move it and re-set the view later.

Edit your Location Details

For each location, you can give it a name, photos and/or videos, some descriptive text and a number of other details. This section will walk you through all of the options.

Location Name

Give your location a name. If you searched for a location, the name will probably already be in the Location name box, but you can edit it if you wish. For the tour we’re building, let’s give the location in Bournemouth the name "Jane’s Home".

location name

Add a photo or video

Under "Enhance the Story" is a place to add up to 25 photos and/or videos. Just like you did for the Introduction, add the jane_and_leakey.jpg photo to this location.

If you add captions to your Picasa photos or you add a description to your YouTube video, those will be brought in as captions in Tour Builder.

photo and video interface

Start and End Dates

Tour builder can show dates just under the Location Name. If you want to show a start date or an end date, or both, you can enter them here. Dates can be just the year, the month, the day or any combination of these... all three are not required. The dates are optional, so we’ll leave them blank for this example.

Note that setting the start and end dates only makes those dates appear in the location content and does not effect the historical imagery settings (discussed below).

date controls

Add some description text

Under "Tell the Story" is a text box for you to type the story of this location. Just like in the introduction, you have some basic formatting controls here.

For this tour, type or copy & paste something like this:

Growing up in Bournemouth, Jane Goodall was fascinated by animals and loved to read Dr. Dolittle and the Tarzan series. In 1957, she went to Kenya and met the famous Dr. Louis Leakey who hired her as a secretary and eventually helped her start to study chimpanzees.

tell the story text box

Customise the View

Let’s move to the map for a minute and customise the map view associated with this location. Using the techniques described above, navigate to a nice view. Let’s zoom in a bit and tilt the map to a view something like the one shown below.

zoom and tilt map then lock this view

Once you have a view you like, click the blue Lock this View button in the top right of the map. This associates this view with your location and, when your users go to this location, the map will fly to this view.

Please note this feature is not available in 2D mode.

Choose an Icon

Back in the Location content editing panel, Under "Location Icon", you can choose a map icon for your location. Click on Change Icon to see the options and choose an icon from the available list. Let’s use the yellow house icon for this one.

icon selector

Historical Imagery

Google Earth has historical imagery available in many places around the world. In some places, it might have one or two images available going back a few years. In other places, it has images going back to the early days of aerial imagery collection. To see what is available near your location, tick the Show Historical Imagery option and observe that the time slider appears in the top left-hand corner of the map. Move the slider to your date of interest and look for the white tick marks on the slider bar to find an available image close to that date.

Once you have the slider set for the historical imagery you want, make sure the view zoom and angle of the map are how you want them and click the blue Lock this View button in the top right-hand corner of the map to lock in the view with the historical imagery setting.

historical imagery and time slider

Please note the historical imagery feature is not available in 2D mode.

Adding map overlays

At the bottom of the Location editing panel, there are options to Add a KML/KMZ by URL. This means that you can add a geographic dataset as an overlay on the map, and this overlay will be shown when the user navigates to this Location. Any overlays you set in the Tour Introduction will be shown throughout the entire tour, and any overlays you set for a location will be shown for that location. For this demo we will add an overlay in another location. For more information on creating overlays, look up KML and My Maps.

Saving your work

Tour Builder will save automatically but you can always click the Save Now button in the top right, just to be on the safe side.

Add some more locations.

Let's add a few more locations so that we have an interesting tour.

Second Location

  1. Click the + Add Location button on the left to add a new location.
  2. Search for "Gombe National Park" in Tanzania and, when you find it, click the blue Add to Tour button.
  3. Zoom out a bit to show more of the park and rotate & tilt the view to look from the lake towards the hills of Gombe. Click the blue Lock this View button in the top right of the map to save the view.
  4. Change the Location Name to: "The Chimps of Gombe"
  5. Add the first chimpanzee photo to this location: chimps_fishing_for_termites.jpg
  6. Click the "+" button on the photo to add another photo. Add the other chimpanzee photos: gaia_and_google.jpg and gombe_researcher_observing_chimps.jpg.
    If you want to remove a photo, simply click the rubbish bin icon in the bottom right of the photo box to remove it.
  7. In the "Tell the Story" description box, type (or copy/paste) something like:

    Gombe National Park is where Jane Goodall did much of her research and showed that chimpanzees know how to make and use tools, like humans do. Her research team has studied the behaviour and followed the lives of the chimpanzees of Gombe for many decades now.

  8. Under Location Icon, change the icon to the green tree icon.
  9. Click the Save Now button in the top right.
screenshot of location two and settings

Third Location

  1. Click the blue + Add Location button.
  2. From Gombe, zoom the map out until you can see all of central Africa.
  3. Click the Drop Placemark button and drag your mouse cursor over the map. You’ll see a Click to Drop target on the map which moves with your mouse. Click somewhere in central Africa to drop the marker, maybe over Gabon or the Congo (don’t worry about getting it exactly right, anywhere near there will work).
  4. Click the blue Add to Tour button to add the marker to the map and start editing the details for this location.
  5. Set the Location Name to: "Chimpanzee Conservation"
  6. Add a video to this location: click on Add Photos & Videos, select Search YouTube and search for "Jane Goodall Ground to the Cloud". Click to select the first result called: "From the Ground to the Cloud:...", then click the blue Select button to add the video to your location. If you have trouble finding the video via search, you can also add the video directly by URL:
  7. In the "Tell the Story" box, type (or copy/paste) something like:

    The Jane Goodall Institute (JGI) works around the world to promote the conservation of chimpanzees in Africa. This map shows the approximate historical range of chimpanzee habitat, which has been shrinking rapidly due to human incursion and deforestation. The video above shows how JGI uses Google mapping tools. To help JGI protect chimpanzees, find out more on their website and consider donating.

  8. Add a link to:
  9. At the bottom of the Location panel, click on GME map and, in the box that appears, enter this URL to a map of Chimpanzee ranges:

  10. Click the Load button to load the overlay onto the map. If you want to reset the view to show the overlay better, you can move the map and click the Lock this View button.
screenshot of location three and settings

Rearrange the locations

You can easily rearrange the order of your locations by dragging the location cards up and down in the list. Try dragging a location to the top of the list and then back to where it belongs.

rearrange location cards

Let’s see what it looks like!

You've finished creating your first tour and adding three locations to it! Click the Save Now button in the top right just to be on the safe side.

Now click the Done Editing button in the top right to exit editing mode and go to viewing mode.

If you click the top Introduction card in the list on the left, you will see the overview that will greet your users when they start your tour.

tour introduction and map overview

Now click the Next button, or the first location "Jane’s Home" and watch the map fly in to that location. Click on the second and third locations to see Gombe and then the Chimp ranges across Africa. At each location, you can read the story in the text, view the photos and videos, and explore further in the map. For more information, see the View a Tour section near the beginning of this tutorial.

Sharing a Tour

Now that you have a complete tour, you can start to share it with others.

Sharing with Individual People

You might want to share your tour only with specific people. This could be because your tour tells a story that you only want to share with specific people, or you are still developing the tour and you want only a few friends or colleagues to see it and provide feedback. It’s easy to share a tour with specific people. They will need to log in with their Google account to see it.

  • Make sure you are looking at the tour you want to share and that you are in viewing mode. If not, click the Done Editing button in the top right.
  • Click the blue Share button in the top right to get to the Sharing settings dialogue.
  • share settings dialogue
  • To share only a specific person, enter their email address under "Invite people". You can add more than one person by separating the email addresses with commas.
  • Click the blue Done button at the bottom to save your settings. This will send an email to the address(es) you entered with a link to the tour.

Sharing More Widely

When you are ready to share your tour more widely, make it available so that anyone with the link can access it, without needing to log in. This is useful for when your tour is complete and you’re ready to share it on your website, blog or on social media.

  • From View mode in the tour you want to share, click the blue Share button in the top right-hand corner.
  • In the "Sharing settings" dialogue, look for "Who can access", which should say "Private - Only the people listed below can access".
  • To the right of that, click the Change… link.
  • share settings dialogue
  • Select "Anyone who has the link"
  • Click the blue Save button.
  • sharing visibility options
  • Copy the link at the top of the dialogue under "Link to share".
  • link to share
  • Click the blue Done button.

Now you can share that link on your website or blog, or send it out via email or social media. Anyone who clicks on the link will be able to access and view your tour and explore your story!

Sharing on Google Plus

Click the Google Plus button to share a link to your tour with your Google Plus circles or followers.

share with google plus

What’s Next?

To explore Tour Builder in more depth, try adding some more locations, customising their map views and adding more photos and videos to your locations using the various options available. You can also play with the date settings, the historical imagery settings and the map overlay options for including KML and GME maps in your tour.

Discussion & Feedback

Do you have questions about this tutorial or about Tour Builder? Do you want to discuss with other users and experts? Visit the "Non-profit Outreach / Education" section on the Google Earth discussion forum to find answers, ask questions and discuss with others:

Google Earth Forum - Non-profit Outreach / Education

If you have feedback about Tour Builder, including issues you've encountered or suggestions for the product, click the Feedback link at the bottom of the Tour Builder home page.