New York Life Insurance Company continued to top Dalbar Inc.’s rankings of best life insurance and annuity websites for consumers in the third quarter of 2008, while Lincoln Financial Group held onto its lead among top sites for financial professionals.

Both New York Life’s and Lincoln Financial’s websites now have earned Dalbar’s Excellent rating for 18 straight quarters.

Dalbar, a financial research company in Boston, publishes its WebMonitor report each quarter, evaluating the online faces of life insurance and annuity companies on such factors as usefulness, range of functions and appearance.

In the rankings of consumer-oriented sites, Pacific Life Insurance Company returned to second place in the third quarter, bumping AXA Equitable, which had replaced Pacific Life in that spot in the previous quarter.

AIG SunAmerica’s consumer site showed one of the more significant improvements in the view of Dalbar researchers. It rose 3 places to the sixth spot, winning points for a number of improvements, including providing users with a new e-mail form to request help in using the website and a convenient means for users to send site pages directly to friends and family.

Prudential Financial also made a notable improvement in the quarter, rising to ninth place from 16 with a number of enhancements, including a refined search engine and tools that allow users to collect articles and research on a topic into a “briefcase” or to format them for fast printing. The site also offers advice to employers on how to inform employees about the value of their benefit options.

Many insurers and annuity providers used their consumer websites during the third quarter to respond to fears about the tumbling economy, Dalbar found.

It was a period when many financial companies were showered with e-mails and phone calls from worried customers, and when advisors, too, were often beset by clients worried about dwindling savings and investments, Dalbar says.

To reach out to worried customers through their websites, many companies posted messages and detailed commentaries about the financial turmoil and emphasizing their underlying financial soundness, Dalbar reports.

For instance, TIAA-CREF offered consumers a number of resources through its site, ranging from videos and audio clips to market commentary and investment guidance. It also took pains to underline that it had only limited exposure to shaky investments.

Western & Southern Financial Group promoted its financial strength with a prominent home page ad and a statement highlighting its sound financial record. It also included a reassuring statement from its chairman, president and CEO John F. Barrett, boasting of the company’s stability.

All told, 57% of sites that offer new information on the financial markets had some sort of message from a top company executive, focusing on the state of the markets and what the company was doing to stay sound, Dalbar found.

Among firms offering video statements from key executives:

–Thrivent Financial presented “Standing Strong in Troubled Times,” featuring its chief investment officer, Russell Swansen.

–Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company CEO Stu Reese provided an assessment of how the current economy has affected the company and emphasizing its general optimism for the future.

–Northwestern Mutual’s CEO Edward Zore stressed the company’s financial strength.

Other firms such as ING, USAA and New York Life stepped up e-mail communications to site subscribers. They used e-newsletters or e-bulletins with links to information posted on the company’s consumer site.

A number of consumer websites also began using new approaches to presenting product information. Dalbar singled out Transamerica, which added drop-down menus to provide smoother access to product pages; and Western & Southern Life, whose home page featured a folded-down corner hiding an advertisement for specific products. Scrolling over the corner expands it, a feature that Dalbar admired for making the most of page space.

Other companies added stand-alone retirement sites as offshoots of their main website. Dalbar pointed to AXA Equitable for creating a special site as a one-stop guide to a number of outside resources for those who are retired or approaching retirement. The site includes guides to help satisfy a range of interests for seniors, such as locating nearby health clubs, finding part-time jobs, and identifying local home-improvement contractors.

Symetra and Principal Financial were among other companies launching new websites devoted to retirement planning and education, Dalbar noted.

Among professional sites, following Lincoln Financial, AIG American General moved up one spot to second place in the third quarter, edging out AXA Distributors with such improvements as icons to format pages for printing and for sharing pages with third parties. It also perked up the site visually with softer colors, rotating banner ads and better use of page space, Dalbar found.

AIG American General also aimed considerable content at calming financial advisors’ concerns about its recent financial difficulties, including an overview of how the federal bailout would benefit AIG and its subsidiaries.

Other professional sites Dalbar noted for special mention included Pacific Life, which added a worksheet to help professionals probe deeper into clients needs, inserted new market commentary, improved its asset-allocation help for customizing clients’ portfolios, and made it easier to tailor clients’ variable annuity investments. It also offered a new tool for developing sales presentations online.

Transamerica advanced 6 spots to 10th place among professional sites ranked by Dalbar with a number of enhancements, including a marketing toolkit and interactive help for ordering and for completing contracts and licensing forms online.

A notable trend Dalbar found among professional sites was the addition of tools to strengthen guidance in ordering products for clients. Standouts included Pacific Life’s Lifeline site, which upgraded its assistance for completing life insurance applications, including built-in checks that tag omitted information.

Similarly, Dalbar says, Principal Financial upgraded its electronic forms with e-signature capabilities, while MassMutual provided an asset-allocation tool for use with investment options in retirement accounts, helping advisors propose an investment lineup in tune with a retiree’s expected retirement date.