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One of the most common words to be found on sites that might be defined as being Web 2.0 is beta.

But does this mean anything to those who don’t work in the tech space and should there be a time-limit on how long a site can remain in beta?

While looking for a recipe for Sunday lunch yesterday I was taking a look round the BBC’s Food section.

Whilst there, I noticed that the logo included that most Web 2.0 of words, beta. This got me wondering whether the word actually meant anything to most normal users, considering its beginnings as a term used by web developers.

The BBC certainly doesn’t seem to think so, as it has a prominently placed button entitled What is beta? which leads to the following explanation:

"The term 'beta' refers to a web page that is still under development.
We would like your feedback about the Food beta homepage to try to improve it further.
Then once everyone is happy with it, we'll remove its beta label."

This is probably as good an explanation as any, but I do wonder whether it is one that would satisfy most users.

I would hazard a guess that most people expect any site that they can access to be the finished article, whereas those who work in tech, for whom the word beta is a familiar sight, will well understand the principle and be prepared to put up with the quirks & bugs which often accompany sites in a beta stage.

And some very unscientific research revealed that 53% of people who work for the other agencies in our group* knew what beta meant (which was higher than I expected) but many of those saw it as a negative thing.

We currently work with a company that is looking to move from a fairly tech-centric audience to a more mainstream one and, as part of that process, we have been debating whether we should remove the beta status from the homepage for these very reasons.

We’ve yet to come to a conclusion but I would imagine that the beta suffix will not be long for this world, at least as far as our client is concerned.

That doesn’t seem to be something which worries Google however. Its webmail product Google Mail is still in beta, more than 4 years since its private beta launched, and over a year since the public beta became available.

To be fair, the beta label is pretty small, but it does make me wonder whether, in this instance at least, beta isn’t simply being used as a protective measure.

As one of the respondents to our internal survey put it, it often “feels just like a bit of a con to make you forgive any shortfalls or broken links” and when something still hasn’t been finalised after 4 years, they may just have a point. 

Ciaran Norris is the SEO & Social Media Director at Altogether Digital.

*it is worth mentioning that 2 of the other 11 agencies in our group do work that  is entirely or primarily digital in nature.

Ciaran Norris

Published 12 August, 2008 by Ciaran Norris

12 more posts from this author

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Andrew Nesbitt

Andrew Nesbitt, Developer at Forward Internet Group

In my experience as a web developer the beta label has always been requested by marketing or management rather than developers.

If a product was truly beta it wouldn't be made available to the general public (in buzzword speak an "Alpha" or a "private beta")

almost 8 years ago

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David Lindop

I think you've hit the nail on the head with...

"it does make me wonder whether, in this instance at least, beta isn’t simply being used as a protective measure."

It's almost as if companies think that by labelling something as BETA they can escape the responsibilities of support (and sometimes even official documentation). Google are a particularly annoying company in this respect!

A lot of open source developers however, will give the user a choice to download either the stable version, or the latest BETA version - lots of people like to be ahead of the curve and enjoy using the less stable version (and their feedback in turn helps the developers to make the new version more stable.) Personally I think this is a more honest use of the word.

almost 8 years ago

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Rosie Nottage

Wouldn't it be nice if we could stick BETA on other things in life... new hairstyles? a business plan nobody has seen before? our new gym bunny status? a new boyfriend? Then we could get feedback on how to improve our lot whilst admonishing any responsibility.

'Let me know if you like him - its still in BETA'

I think its a cop out - but I like the nod to interactive feedback that the BBC seem to be encouraging.

almost 8 years ago

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Dr. Pete

Agreed - "Beta" has become a CYA maneuver that says to the public "We released this before it was ready, so don't blame us if it doesn't work right". I think it's pretty natural in the web world to fix and improve as you go (since iteration is so much easier), but it shouldn't become standard operating procedure. The whole idea of a Beta in the software world was to fully test a product with limited exposure so that the general public didn't have to suffer through that process.

In Gmail's case, and to be fair to Google, the site is better developed than most major online tools. I think they could safely remove "beta" from the icon.

almost 8 years ago

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Stephen T

An interesting spin on the BETA concept I've heard is one to do with continuous improvement. So instead of it being an excuse for bugs and half-cooked functionality, it is a way to say to users "we want you to help us make this the best service possible".

almost 8 years ago

Ciaran Norris

Ciaran Norris, Chief Digital Officer at Mindshare

Interestingly when I polled the people in our office several suggested that they thought it meant the site was in a state of continuous improvement: I like that idea but don't think that's what most sites mean by it. And to be honest, I tend to think that all web-sites should be in a state of constant improvement, even if the improvements only happen twice a year.

I tend to agree with Andrew that a BETA should really be limited in terms of release.

almost 8 years ago

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