Dalbar Inc.’s rankings of best life insurance and annuity company websites saw some noteworthy shifts during 2008, although sites at the top of the list changed little.

Among its top 25 consumer-oriented sites for the fourth quarter, Dalbar, Boston, again gave New York Life Insurance Company top grades, with strong scores for usability, functionality, and for accommodating the needs of site visitors. It was followed by AXA Equitable, carrying on its back-and-forth battle with Pacific Life for second place.

SunAmerica landed in fourth place on the consumer site list, advancing 2 spots since the third quarter to fourth place after boosting its score from around 71 to almost 74 in Dalbar’s scoring system.

In fact, SunAmerica showed the strongest advance among all consumer sites for all of 2008, after not even landing in the top-25 list in the first quarter. Among other improvements, SunAmerica enhanced navigational menus, made better use of page space and improved graphics, Dalbar researchers say. It also updated content with additional educational tools for investors on such topics as retirement planning while expanding information about company products.

Thrivent Financial’s consumer site made a strong move up, finishing 9th in the 4th quarter after sitting in 18th place for most of the year. Thrivent completely redesigned its site to present information in a clear and logical manner, Dalbar says. The company updated the look and the overall impression of the site while making more effective use of page space. Much of the improvement resulted from site visitors’ responses to Thrivent’s online feedback survey in 2007, according to Dalbar’s report on its rankings.

Also improving substantially was Prudential Financial’s consumer site, winding up the year in 10th place, up 3 spots from its position in the first quarter of 2008. Dalbar’s raters liked the site’s addition of a “briefcase” where users could store article and market commentary, along with improved search options with filtering options that let visitors refine their hunt for information. Pru also won points from Dalbar for putting a “Women & Money” area on its site.

Dalbar notes some life insurance and annuity websites added easy-payment options for customers. For instance, Genworth Financial added a feature that lets clients make life or long term care insurance premium payments online on the home page, without the need to sign into their account. Thrivent also added a bill pay option for its term, universal and variable universal life policies as well as for fixed or variable annuity contracts.

Another development Dalbar noted in the quarter was a number of firms offering advice on getting household finances back on track in the f ace of the unstable markets.

New York Life, for instance, urged consumers to perform an annual review to put their finances in order, while USAA Life Insurance Company offered tips on improving family money management. In the same vein, Fidelity released a series of retirement resolutions to consider, while John Hancock Annuities’ site offered a guide to reviewing investments.

In Dalbar’s rankings of the top 25 life and annuity sites for financial professionals, Lincoln Financial remained in first place. The company has now been rated “Excellent” by Dalbar for 19 straight quarters, a designation the research firm awards to companies that score at least 80 on its 100-point rating system.

Following Lincoln National at the top of the list of top professional sites were American General, AXA Distributors and Allstate Financial.

SunAmerica duplicated its success with its consumer site by making extensive improvements to its professional site. It moved up to 5th place in the rankings since the first quarter of 2008, when it did not even make the top 25.

In addition to enhancing the site’s design and appearance and improving menus, SunAmerica won points for a new online Answer Center to keep professionals informed about the parent company, including news about the Federal Reserve bailout and reports about the company’s financial strength.

Securian Advisor, the professional site of Securian Financial Group Inc., advanced 3 spots since the 3rd quarter and 7 places since the start of 2008 with a number of upgrades to advisor support. Dalbar raters especially admired its LaserApp tool, which prefills information on commonly used forms and permits easy access to advisor and client records. In addition, a portfolio feature helps advisors to set and change client investment allocations.

The professional website of Transamerica, part of AEGON N.V., the Netherlands, finished in 9th place, up 1 spot from the previous quarter and a total of 6 since the start of the year. Dalbar admired the addition of a Podcast library of information for professionals along with improved search features. new interactive forms and the ability to send information to clients directly from the website.