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.