Since the .com version of most names have long been gone, new companies face a dilemma when trying to go online. Do we add a "the" to our name? Do we go w/ the .net., org. etc? Do we add an "inc" to the end? Or should we make an effort to acquire our exact name, whatever the cost?
As anybody doing business online can tell you, your URL does matter. A lot in fact. And whether or not you can go w/ a similar name in a .com or an alternative TLD (ending) depends on what the purpose and scope of the website is. Specifically:
1- Does this website represent a brand name that is a big part of your marketing?
2- Do you want the website to attract traffic to your business, or serve as a place for existing customers and "real world" referrals?
3- Is this website going to be a big part of your business, or more of an advertising brochure?
4- Do you plan to do sales online?
Let's look at an example from a company that I do business with. They are an educational publisher, with a quite nifty product called "Think Spanish," an audio magazine teaching Spanish. Each monthly issue has a nice array of articles about culture, grammar, travel, and vocabulary, presented in a user friendly format with an audio CD with a spoken word version of the magazine in Spanish.
Yet they faced the problem when going online that the domain Thinkspanish.com was already taken, by a nice fellow who had no interest in selling out cheaply. So they took the name Readspanish.com instead, and have done reasonably well with SEO and cross linking, so that their site has acheived a respectable 590,516 ranking in Alexa, and a PR 5 in Google. Not great but not bad for a niche publication.
Meanwhile the guy over at Thinkspanish.com has put up no more than an affiliate site full of links to Amazon DVDs. While his website is easy to navigate and surely helpful for a Spanish student, it is small, has terrible traffic (no data in Alexa - that means you get so little traffic they don't bother to rank you), and only ranks a PR 4 in Google. The bottom line is that the Think Spanish magazine people could do way better with this domain that he does.
And having the URL "Read Spanish" when your product is called "Think Spanish" - is a BIG problem. Imagine the type-in traffic they are losing to the DVD guy! Caramba. While in such a niche industry it may not be the end of the world, their case demonstrates a scenario that crops up all the time. While they might not be able to acquire the actual Thinkspanish.com, I suggested to them that at the very least they acquire the available versions .org, .us, .info, & .biz - and redirect them to the existing Readspanish.com website.
The problem with not acquiring the domain Thinkspanish.com - whatever the cost - is that their company has very little viability as an internet business without this name. While they can use the traffic directed to the current site to acquire new customers, they are not truly building an online presence w/ branding behind it. This is not a good long term strategy. "Real world" businesses would be well advised to keep in mind that their online business can develop both a life and value of its own, and if you don't strategize to build the worth of your website as well as your offline business, you are thinking too small.
Being the e-entrepeneur that I am, who believes in the exponential possibilities of e-business...if I were them I would either fork to buy Thinkspanish.com, or change the name of the magazine to Read Spanish. Since the guy who owns the current URL is clearly making little to no money off of it, a buyout could seem attractive. I would at least try negotiating with him. He is suffering from the exact same problem they are, in that his URL has nothing to do with DVDs - so perhaps they could acquire an alternative URL and use it as a bargaining chip.
Bottom line is that despite the successes you can have with alternative ending websites, owning the .com version of your product name can be an important part of building value in an online business, and one that shouldn't be dismissed out of hand just because you'd rather pay $9.20 for your domain at Godaddy.