New York Life has retained its leading position on Dalbar Inc.’s rankings of the best life insurance and annuity websites for consumers for the first quarter of 2007, while Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company remained at the top of the research firm’s quarterly list of best sites for financial professionals.

The most impressive upswing in the rankings could be found among sites for financial professionals, where Protective Life Insurance, Birmingham, Ala., climbed 24 places to 19th place, landing in Dalbar’s ratings for the first time.

Looking at the best websites for professionals, Allstate Financial and Lincoln Life held on to their respective second- and third-ranked positions. On the consumer site side, AXA Advisors advanced one spot to third place in the rankings by Dalbar, Boston, which evaluates the effectiveness of financial companies’ online presence.

Fidelity Investments’ consumer site continued its recent decline, falling 4 notches to tenth place after being ranked in the top 3 for years. Fidelity lost points for inconsistent appearance, page transitions and content, according to Dalbar.

Among a number of improved consumer websites, Transamerica Occidental Life Insurance Company, Los Angeles, moved into 19th place from 23rd. The company revamped its Web-based customer service, allowing online death claims and interactive form completion and offering enhanced product information and archived account statements.

John Hancock Financial Services, Boston, moved up 2 spots to 20th place by making its site easier to navigate and adding links to corporate financial statements, contact information and other features.

Great American Financial Resources Inc., Cincinnati, rose 4 spots to 21st place after punching up its site with product information, investment education and other features.

Dalbar also singled out Principal Financial for simplifying access to information, allowing users to view details of their accounts easily and providing links to new planning tools and educational resources.

Dalbar site evaluators also awarded points to Western & Southern Financial Group, Cincinnati, for adding new security procedures to protect user information.

One new trend was the use of “microsites” within some consumer sites, Dalbar reports. Lincoln Financial, for instance, created a new retirement planning location under the sponsorship of its Lincoln Retirement Institute.

Thrivent Financial launched a new microsite devoted to ThriveQ, its education program focusing on retirement advice. ThriveQ offers retirement calculators and a 21-question survey that scores the individual’s retirement readiness.

John Hancock added a microsite supporting its “The Future is Yours” ad campaign, allowing consumers to find products that help reach investment goals.

In another consumer site trend, more companies introduced useful tax advice and resources, Dalbar noted, singling out Western & Southern, New York Life Insurance Co. and Prudential Financial Inc.

Among insurer sites aimed at financial professionals, Protective Life made the biggest splash, adding extensive corporate information, rating services’ evaluations of Protective, and new features enabling advisors to gain access to their own accounts as well as those of clients, complete certain transactions and keep track of broker-dealer activity. Other enhancements include extensive product information, sample sales presentations and scripts, and retirement-planning tools.

Pacific Life’s Lifeline moved up 6 places to 7th place, with a number of new online capabilities, including improved e-mail security and easier site navigation.

Fidelity climbed 3 places to number 20, with flexible account-management technology, updates on regulatory and compliance news, a tax education center and new planning tools to helps advisor educate themselves.

Dalbar points out 2 new trends that emerged among insurers’ advisor-oriented sites. The first is the growth of online literature-ordering capabilities. According to Dalbar, standout systems include Allstate’s, which provides an online guide that walks users through its new literature-ordering system. Pacific Life’s new system lets advisors search for materials and provides convenient links to the most ordered literature. Genworth Financial and New York Life Annuities both added a shopping cart feature that makes it easy for producers to order items and track order status while prefilling order forms with the agent’s shipping information.

The second development cited by Dalbar was the addition of new or upgraded audio training by a number of advisor sites.

Principal Financial added an extensive archive of its sales conferences in mp3 format, covering such topics as retirement income planning, legislative updates and product information.

John Hancock won points for new mp3 files discussing advanced marketing concepts, underwriting practices and product riders and benefits.

Dalbar’s list of “Excellent” professional sites grew from 4 in the last quarter of 2006 to 6 in first quarter 2007 with the addition of AXA Distributors and Pacific Life.

Dalbar gives the Excellent rating to sites that score at least 80 on its 100-point scale, which evaluates usability, functionality and other quality measures.