Dalbar Inc.’s list of top life insurance and annuity websites saw a major shake-up in the first quarter of 2008, with nearly all sites changing places in the standings after Dalbar overhauled its rating system.

Most of the changes in the rankings were due to adjustments to the scoring method to take into account what site visitors actually want to do when they visit an insurance or annuity site, according to Dalbar.

Dalbar, a research firm in Boston, says it redesigned its WebMonitor evaluation system to give more emphasis to practical features online users of financial services and financial professionals care about most. As a result, scores dropped across the board, even for companies at the top of the list.

The changes “most definitely impacted the rankings,” says Kathleen Whalen, managing director of Dalbar. “We’re giving a lot more emphasis to behavior-centric support, ensuring that people can do online what they used to do offline.”

New York Life Insurance Company remained as the top website for consumers by life and annuity carriers in the first quarter, while Lincoln Life advanced 2 places to land at the head of the list of sites for industry professionals.

In the consumer standings, 23 of 25 firms moved up or down, while 21 of 25 firms on the professional site list changed places. Even for those that held their positions or advanced on the list, scores declined under the revamped ratings, compared to the final quarter of 2007.

New York Life held on to its number 1 position among consumer Web sites, even though its overall score dropped from 89.6 in 4Q 2007 to 81.59 in 1Q 2008. It was the only consumer site to receive Dalbar’s “excellent” rating in the quarter, which is given to sites earning at least 80 on its 100-point rating system.

Dalbar’s evaluators commended the site on a number of features, such as allowing users to see a unified view of accounts they hold with the company, from life insurance to mutual funds. The site also won points for its use of drop-down and fly-out menus to facilitate users’ access to accounts and to detailed policy information.

NYL’s site also offers customers a virtual service center that helps them manage their accounts, make address changes, request loans, and withdraw and transfer funds, Dalbar noted.

Pacific Life rose 4 spots to second place in the consumer rankings with a number of improvements, including downloadable PDF product guides and a site area where users can find out about the investment performance of specific products.

AXA Advisors dropped from second to third place as its score fell from 82.6 to 73.5. It lost points for inconsistency of appearance among some of its Web pages, according to Dalbar. Still, its evaluators gave AXA high marks for the site’s usability, including new links to IRA education materials.

Under Dalbar’s scoring system, usability includes the ease of getting around a site and finding key information.

Dalbar also singled out a new website from parent company AXA Equitable Life Insurance Company, a unit of AXA S.A., Paris, which links to the Web addresses of AXA Advisors and other company subsidiaries. AXA Equitable also added interest by incorporating its “800 pound gorilla” campaign into its annuity site, Dalbar notes.

Hartford Financial Services Group Inc. advanced 5 places to the 4th spot on the consumer list, largely by improving its site’s functionality, a label Dalbar uses to cover the range of practical activities, tools and tasks available to the site visitor.

Lincoln Life, a subsidiary of Lincoln Financial Group, was 5th on the consumer list, advancing 9 places on the strength of a strong advance in site usability.

Other notable advances among insurers’ consumer sites were made by Prudential Financial Inc., advancing from 18th to 13th place; and by Principal Financial and ING USA, both of which landed in the top 25 for the first time after strong improvements in their behavior-centric scores.

Turning to sites designed for financial professionals, Lincoln Financial moved up into the top spot with a site that lets financial professionals manage clients’ mutual fund, annuity, life and qualified retirement plan accounts in one location.

The site also uses consistent tab headings and intuitive positioning of tools and resources to make it easy to move among accounts and policies, Dalbar said.

AXA Distributors retained second place in the standings by allowing professionals to search client policies readily or to see a complete list of all clients in each product segment. The site also offers printer-friendly client policy information and review of current and historical account values.

AIG American General, part of American International Group Inc., advanced 3 spots to third place with an improved section on licensing and contracting, including fillable forms, and by allowing agents to search for information on their commissions, outstanding contracts and other facts.

Allstate Financial held on to 4th place with a number of features, including the ability to retrieve pending, replacement and recently issued policy lists from the home page. Producers can also see up-to-date information on attending physician statement status for pending cases. The company also launched a new page to help agents guide clients’ retirement planning.

New York Life & Annuity retained its fifth spot among professional sites, while Massachusetts Mutual Life dropped out of first place to 6th in the category, largely due to the shift in emphasis in Dalbar’s grading, which dropped its score from 91.69 in the fourth quarter to 77.91.

Other leaders among professional sites in the quarter include Pacific Life Insurance’s Lifeline, which made an impression on Dalbar evaluators with a number of improvements, including a listing of sales ideas catalogued under sections devoted to business planning, retirement and estate planning.

Whalen, Dalbar’s managing director, says skewing the ratings more toward behavior-centric features helps emphasize a site’s ability to allow users to emulate online how they would gather information or handle financial transactions offline. These include such features as ease of contacting the company and, for financial professionals, managing new business.

Under its new system, Dalbar now awards up to 20 points for such behavior-centric features, compared to 5 points under its old system.

The ratings also beefed up the emphasis on usability from 25 to 30 points. It continues to award 50 points for functionality.

In addition, Dalbar dropped its scoring for consistency in appearance and in page transitions, which previously accounted for 20 points. Instead, evaluators now subtract from a site’s score for perceived weaknesses in this area.