Several life insurance and annuity companies significantly improved their standings on Dalbar Inc.’s lists of best financial websites in the final quarter of 2005 while the top-ranked companies held their position.

Among sites designed for consumers, New York Life, Fidelity Investments and Lincoln Life retained the top three places. Among sites for professionals, MassMutual, Lincoln Life and Allstate Financial also held their lofty positions as best-ranked life and annuity sites, according to Dalbar, a Boston research firm that develops the closely watched website rankings.

Dalbar rates life and annuity company sites from the viewpoint of visitors, evaluating such qualities as functionality, usability, speed and consistency.

The most improved consumer site in the fourth quarter belonged to Nationwide Mutual Insurance Company, Columbus, Ohio, which climbed 17 spots to seventh place in the rankings.

According to Dalbar, Nationwide enhanced its online presence by making it easier for consumers to get around the site, using a consistent color scheme and providing easy links to the home page. It also added a “jargon translator” that explains insurance terms in simple language, beefed up its product information and improved its educational resources, including adding a Spanish language version of the site.

Nationwide recently tied its site together around the theme, “Life comes at you fast,” showing how its products could help consumers prepare for various stages of their lives.

ING-USA, a unit of ING Groep, Amsterdam, also made a significant gain, rising to 29th place from 36th by offering improved content and a more user friendly design. Among changes noted by Dalbar was a table of contents and well-organized displays of information in each section of the site. It also increased the number of calculators and other financial tools available to users, Dalbar notes.

Principal Financial, Des Moines, Iowa, rose four places to the 30th spot by adding a menu-driven navigation method that made it easier for visitors to find their way around.

One trend Dalbar noted among a number of top-ranked consumer-oriented sites was the publication of surveys probing consumers’ financial behavior in depth.

ING and MetLife, for instance, both posted studies examining baby boomers’ anxiety as they approach retirement, while Allstate Financial released a study of Americans’ biggest concerns–namely, terrorism, followed closely by saving enough for retirement and fear of outliving their savings.

Among sites designed for use by agents and other financial professionals, American Skandia improved considerably, rising to eighth place from 13th by enhancing client account access through popular portfolio management software packages used by agents. It also strengthened marketing materials by enabling advisors to put their names and other personal information on publications they send to clients.

Principal Financial had the most improved site for professionals, shooting up seven spots to 20th place. Dalbar lauded the site for giving advisors control over their support staff’s access to client information, providing up-to-date commission earning statements and offering advanced search features.

TIAA-CREF, the giant New York-based retirement plan that serves teachers and other nonprofit employees, entered the top 25 sites for professionals for the first time. Dalbar noted it improved five places in the standings largely by fixing a couple of problems with its site–making it easier to exit from a section of the site while updating third-party insurance ratings to show the most recent information available.

The company also added an online demonstration of site resources and a breakdown of the cost and expenses of buying and maintaining a given investment.

A number of professional sites improved retirement planning resources during the fourth quarter, Dalbar notes. ING, for instance, added presentations on a variety of investment topics, while Principal developed a new online network to provide advisors with a platform to share educational material about retirement planning.

Other improvements Dalbar noted among several professional sites: enhanced e-mail capabilities, and faster and easier application processes.

In general, Dalbar saw considerable improvement in professional sites overall, as evidenced by the fact it gave 24 of the top 25 sites a designation of “good” or higher. Dalbar awards that label only to sites scoring at least 60 on its 100-point rating scale. In the third quarter, just 19 sites earned that designation.

In the fourth quarter, only TIAA-CREF, the newest member of the top-25 professional list, missed that designation, by only a fraction of a point.