Amid some notable ups and downs on Dalbar Inc.’s rankings of life insurance/annuity websites, New York Life Insurance Company retained its place as top consumer site in the 4th quarter of 2007, while Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company remained on top of sites for financial professionals.

Among consumer sites, AXA Advisors moved into 2nd place from 3rd, while Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company and Western & Southern Financial Group continued to make strong upward moves on that list.

Dalbar, Boston, gave strong grades to Northwestern Mutual for introducing ratings by Morningstar and Lipper of mutual fund subaccounts to its consumer site, along with other information on each fund. Northwestern also gained points for speeding up load times for its Web pages.

Western & Southern moved up from 11th place to 4th by improving the consistency of transitions between Web pages, “leading to a more cohesive, accessible and intuitive experience on the site,” according to Dalbar.

The carrier also offered standardized average annual investment return figures for its annuity products, both with and without guaranteed minimum withdrawal benefit riders. Forms on its site are also automatically filled in with a client’s personal information, while users can also submit death claims online.

Fidelity improved its site with a number of moves that helped it regain its “Excellent” rating from Dalbar, a score Fidelity had held for a record 26 quarters, until it slipped slightly in the 3rd quarter.

Dalbar rates sites on a scale of 100 points, based on their range of functions, ease of use, load speeds and other criteria. It reserves its Excellent rating for sites that score at least 80 on its scale.

Fidelity raised itself from 12th place to 8th partly on the basis of its introduction of a back-testing feature–a technique that allows investors to examine how well they would have fared with an investment strategy, such as trend-following, over a specified past period of time.

Fidelity also boosted the site’s load speed, Dalbar noted.

Lincoln Life dropped 12 places in the consumer rankings, despite an extensively redesigned site, after Dalbar subtracted points for inconsistency in the appearance of its Web pages and lowered its score for functionality and usability.

Still, Dalbar praised Lincoln Life for prominently featuring its new Futureself ad campaign on the consumer site, in which investors imagine they encounter themselves at some future time.

Dalbar singled out New York Life for encouraging consumers to give permanent life insurance to children as a gift and by encouraging users to invest their year-end bonuses in life insurance and college savings accounts.

It also praised John Hancock Annuities for introducing to its site a retirement study showing that investors using its life-cycle retirement portfolios realized a higher annual return than did those who did not stay invested in such funds.

Among sites for financial professionals, another AXA division, AXA Distributors edged Allstate Financial out of second place, while Pacific Life’s Lifeline site, designed for the company’s own producers, rose to 7th place from 10th.

Top-ranked MassMutual earned Dalbar’s Excellent rating for the 15th straight quarter, earning a score just under 92.

Just behind it, AXA Distributors scored almost 91 after introducing TruePortal, a compensation-management page for professionals. The site lets advisors download an array of compensation reports in different formats from AXA’s distribution division.

Pacific Life’s Lifetime unit moved up 3 spots in part by developing centers on its site specific to estate planning, business planning and retirement planning. Each center offers brochures, software, sales tools and other material to support advisors serving these different markets.

Also included on the site: step-by-step instructions on how to set up a seminar to recruit and educate clients.

ING USA also advanced 3 spots, to 15th place, with a number of improvements, including easier navigation and enhanced usability. It also added a guide explaining how to sell corporate variable universal life insurance.

Dalbar found a number of advisor sites had added useful tools, including a nonqualified distribution calculator, offered by Pacific Life, and a retirement income analysis tool from New York Life Annuities.

Another trend among professional sites spotted by Dalbar was the addition of e-mail notifications for certain events, such as Pacific Life’s system for notifying advisors of client-initiated account changes and Lincoln Financial’s alerts for new sales promotion materials.