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Yahoo’s been in the mapping business longer than a lot of companies. But the Sunnyvale company has let its competitors leapfrog it in one key area – satellite imagery. That’s finally changed. Yahoo’s Jeremy Kreitler is announcing at SDForum tonight that Yahoo has finally added that capability to the Yahoo Maps beta, which we last wrote about here.

Yahoo says that “users can now view locations at about one meter per pixel resolution from anywhere within the United States — from rural areas to major cities. This announcement also gives Yahoo! Maps the best medium-resolution global map data of any of the players in this space, and lets users find most cities, towns, and major land features on the planet.”

What this means is that Yahoo has more roads, towns and other data to overlay on its satellite maps than its competitors.

We’re ambivalent about satellite imagery. On the one hand, it’s real valuable in certain situations. For instance, Yahoo is also announcing the general availability of its FareChase travel search engine, and being able to see real-world images of travel destinations could be valuable. But by and large, we find that a simple image map works great in most circumstances. Regardless, this is an area where Yahoo lagged. So it’s good to see they’ve caught up.

Why did it take so long?

Yahoo product manager Michael Lawless says the company has been focused on “‘the navigation space and the accuracy and usability” of its current map service.

UPDATE from the SDForum event tonight: Some (presumably) good-natured snarkiness between Yahoo and Google at the event tonight. Among other things, Google’s Thai Tran took a dig at Yahoo’s “flashy” maps features and interface, noting that Google is more focused on the core underpinnings of its maps service. And in a demo, Yahoo’s Jeremy Kreitler, who comments below, noted how the image tiles on Yahoo’s satellite imagery seamlessly match each other and flow onto the web page – an apparent dig at the sometimes patchwork rendering of Google’s satellite imagery. Ah competition.

Meanwhile, we’ve neglected to mention Ask.com, which presented tonight and has a noteworthy maps product in its own right, most likely built with far fewer resources than at Yahoo or Google. Ask’s Andy Yang good-naturedly joked about following behind Yahoo and Google and learning from their mistakes.

One other point: It was mentioned repeatedly how expensive the maps data is for Yahoo and Google, and that is why some services are not made available through APIs. One audience member wondered why Yahoo or Google doesn’t just buy maps data company Navteq, and lock out competitors. But as Tran noted, with a nearly $5 billion market cap, Navteq would be a rather pricey acquisition.