The name for products released by large corporations (including their release numbers and maturity "beta" label) is an executive decision based on a combination of marketing, legal, regulatory, and other business considerations (e.g. partnerships, contractual agreements).
The older, brick-and-mortar software-in-a-box sales and distribution model would never have been able to sell anything labeled "beta". When software was first released on the Internet, businesses initially continued to "play fair" using Business 1.0 paradigms along with traditional release numbers and "properly" differentiated alpha/beta/production release designations. This was simply because "that's the way it was always done".
But with Business 2.0 paradigm shifts, including the instantaneous distribution of software over the Internet, coupled with speed-to-market issues, businesses were pressured to release software and web services to the public at earlier points in the development cycle.
Another reason for maintaining beta could be due to the fierce competition on the Internet and possible disruptive innovations. For example, Google's search engine strategy killed Yahoo's hierarchical catalog system, and Craigslist disrupted the entire newspaper industry. With the ease of creating entirely new paradigms of user interaction, it's difficult to know if a particular strategy can maintain a competitive advantage for a long time. Google may have been hesitant to pull the beta designation from it's Gmail interface as it watched for a possible "email-killer" paradigm/application. As they continued to make partnerships and cement their Gmail application into the fabric of other Internet systems, Gmail became more and more likely to retain a long-term competitive advantage. But if some other paradigm threatened Gmail, they would have needed to respond quickly with changes that could have been disruptive.
Google is widely known for releasing products as "beta" and maintaining that designation for many years as the products matured well beyond what would traditionally be considered a "production" release. Other companies are likely following Google's lead for similar reasons.
Note that open-source systems tend to follow a more traditional model:
- Release = Well tested and considered stable.
- Beta = Next release version, fairly stable, but still contains bugs which will be worked out while people test it.
- Latest = Daily build of fixes to Beta or new functionality. Very likely to have bugs in the new functionality or in the bug fixes (bug fixes need to be tested to insure they do in fact fix the bugs and don't introduce some other adverse side effect).
From the perspective of a more traditional for-profit company that is releasing a corporate website, you would need to determine (or ask) how you will track your Software Configuration Management (SCM) as well as your Software Release Cycle. For a larger company, beta (if there is such a thing) could be in-house testing only or may have some limited testing with a few clients. A smaller company might consider beta closer to production. From lower levels, code moves to higher levels with more integration to other systems and databases. Once made "live" it would be considered a "production version" since the pages and code would be moved to production servers which would have corporate policies specific to production code such as 24/7 on call support, policies on who can make changes, when changes can be made, etc.