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Odd to me too, but every Web site is some other planet. Possible your web site had too much text.
Some spiders dont do overtime.
Some balanced approach is needed for every and each SE. Too much is too little for some, and food is poison for others.
I am surprised about overall sucess from such change.
<a href=><imc src=></a> -VS- <a href=>text link</a>
It's not very different from a coding/functional perspective. The <a href=> URL is the only part the spider NEEDS to follow.
That said, I don't see why switching from one to another style of link would make a drastic difference in ranking.
I use both types of links on most sites... Images for links which tend to be identical throughout the entire site (major navigation), text for links/navigation that tend to change from one page to the next. That way, I can have "nice looking" major links, without really increasing load time (since the browser can cache the buttons on the first pageview).
As far as seo importance I am wondering if the buttons might be better. For example, you have a sporting goods site....your keyword for your home page is sporting goods...but you have 15 links off of this page to baseball equip., hockey equip. etc....these links would dilute your main keyword of sporting goods if they were text.
with the example of the sporting goods site I would have though sporting goods was a prety poor choice of keyword...I'd be much more likely to search for equipment fora particular sport...so the text links would be far better