Just when I thought Google Places changes were slowing down to the point where I could catch my breathe, another big one just happened. 🙁

Mike Blumenthal emailed me this morning to get my opinion about the fact that photos are missing in the Google local blended search results. As you know, Google has been showing a Google Places photo attached to business listings on the 1st page of search results in ‘most’ but not all major markets since the big October 27th local update. It varied to some degree by market and keyword but for the most part core competitive keywords in ‘most’ large markets featured the image. Also often, even in markets that did now show the photos, when you clicked Places in the left menu, then you would see the associated images.

Now business profile images seem to be completely missing in the 1st page search results as well as in Places search. My 1st reaction was that I hope this is just a test in a few markets. Mike blogged about it earlier today and has gotten reports that this change is happening all over the world, not just in the US. So if the change is this widespread, it may not be just a test.

UPDATE: Right after publishing Mike emailed to let me know Carter Maslan from Google just confirmed the change. You can read his comment at Mike’s.

Below is a recent screenshot I had on my computer of a local search result page that had images a few days ago, compared to today. No images, plus the map markers are just a little bit smaller. Those are the only two changes I can see.

Here’s my initial reaction, posted over at Blumenthals:

DANG! Hope this is just a test!

I loved the images and it was a great way to make a listing stand out and increase click through rates. Have had a major blog post in the works for a long time about it and have been collecting great examples for the post and now POOF – photos in the SERPs are gone.

That will teach me not to procrastinate on a story. Sheesh, blink and everything in the world of Google Places changes. I’m wondering what other maybe subtle changes they made with this update and am off to investigate.

Then after thinking about it for awhile I decided to make a wild guess about what’s going to happen next. I think Google is going to offer a new service and CHARGE to add a photo to your listing. They gave people a taste of images in the SERPS for a few months. Got everyone used to seeing them (sometimes any way). Now there will be a charge, like there was for Tags, to make your listing stand out from the pack. Would be smart and more effective than the little yellow tag was.

Speculation is going wild. Is this an attempt to drive more of the clicks to paid ads? Or is a new paid image option coming? Is it a test or is this the new norm? Inquiring minds want to know. What do YOU think???