The battle of life insurance and annuity Web sites continued to seesaw among the usual contenders in the third quarter, as New York Life Insurance Company topped Dalbar Inc.’s list of best consumer-oriented sites, while Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company was the top professional site.

Dalbar, Boston, rates financial Web sites on their effectiveness in assisting consumers and financial professionals. Its rating system evaluates each site on such qualities as range of functions, currency and ease of use.

Among Web sites aimed at consumers, Fidelity Investments, Boston, placed second. The company had led the list last quarter.

Lincoln Life was third, achieving an Excellent designation for the 19th consecutive quarter. Dalbar gives its Excellent rating to sites scoring 80 or better on its 100-point system.

New York Life advanced two places in the consumer rankings from last quarter by tweaking its site to make it easier for users to see where they are in the site and improving its agent locator function. It also added a quiz to test consumers’ knowledge of life insurance and offered video testimonials from satisfied customers.

The most improved consumer site was by Pacific Life Insurance Company, San Diego, which advanced nine positions to fifth place, in part, by making more consistent use of menu headings and company insignia. It also offered an online guide to annuities and other information, a review function that enabled consumers to go over transactions before submitting them and fact sheets from Morningstar Inc. about annuity subaccounts.

One recent trend in carriers’ consumer sites was the addition of educational aids aimed at women, Dalbar notes.

For instance, Prudential Financial added a “Women & Finance” section that includes a guide to creating a financial plan. MassMutual launched an online financial seminar for women, while the Principal Financial Group also added online classes and seminars for women business owners.

Dalbar also lauded a number of companies for using their Web sites to reach out to Hurricane Katrina victims, including Principal, Hartford Financial Services Group Inc. and USAA Life Insurance Company.

Among sites aimed at professional financial advisors and producers, many carriers enriched their illustration programs, offered new tools to help advisors become more efficient and generally made it easier to keep on top of clients’ business, Dalbar notes.

MassMutual’s professional site climbed from second place to first after Lincoln Life lost points due to what Dalbar analysts found was a lack of consistency in images and transitions on its professional site.

The most improved professional site was by AXA Distributors, which moved up five places to the 11th spot. AXA reorganized the site and made a number of improvements, making it easier for advisors to find the information they need and to service and monitor client policies. It also made it easier for advisors to use the site to manage client accounts, Dalbar says.

Pacific Life’s Lifeline Web site for life insurance professionals moved up one place to fifth after improving its score by seven points over the prior quarter. Overall navigation was smoother, while the ability to provide quick overviews of subaccounts for the company’s variable products also helped boost the company’s score, according to Dalbar.

A new entrant to the rankings was AIG Life Brokerage, in 23rd place, impressing Dalbar by allowing advisors to track pending business online and view commission statements.

Improved illustration systems helped a number of sites to earn high marks, including third-place Allstate Financial. It introduced ClearCast, which enables agents to create hypothetical views of Allstate variable annuities.

Dalbar also pointed to sixth-place Jefferson-Pilot Corp., whose new Life Portraits Plus illustrator improved on its prior system’s processing speed and now allows agents to run needs analyses. The system can be run straight from the agent’s desktop or directly from the Web, Dalbar notes.

Among sites beefing up practical help to producers was MassMutual, which developed an online tracking and reporting tool to allow advisors to produce financial planning reports. Prudential Financial launched a case-status area on its site to help advisors identify cases with unresolved problems.

Penn Mutual Life Insurance Company offered a new advertising and public relations center to help professionals with prepared print ads, press releases and other promotional materials. Its site also allows producers to reserve ready-made exhibition booths to ship directly to trade shows.

One recent trend in carriers’ consumer sites was the addition of educational aids aimed at women