Electronic commerce: What's in a name? Plenty of headaches

If you want to put your brand name on the Web, be sure someone else hasn't beat you to it. Sandra Vogel reports
Coming up with something unique, memorable, short and yet descriptive to delineate business activity has given plenty of entrepreneurs headaches in the past. Nowadays, no company should go through the naming process without taking the added complication of the Internet into consideration, even if it has no immediate intention of using it.

Despite the vast size and user base of the Internet, web site addresses are at a premium, which affects no user as much as the household, or wannabe- household, brand. No two organisations can share the same web site. A variety of suffixes can be applied to addresses, and these may appear to give scope for name-sharing. In fact, they are more about giving users information about the nature of an organisation.

The most desirable of these suffixes, known as top-level domains, or TLDs, identify organisations by broad, generic type. So .com at the end of a web site address indicates a commercial organisation, .net indicates an Internet service provider or other Internet specialist, and .org is used to identify non-profit-making organisations. Clearly, if you want to get involved in e-commerce, you'll need a .com suffix to make your intentions apparent to your audience. Generally regarded as less desirable are suffixes that go along with a country code, such as .co.uk, indicating a company registered in the UK, and .org.au, indicating a not-for-profit organisation registered in Australia. Again, the scope for commercial organisations in this configuration is limited.

The effects of failing to register the address you want before someone else claims it can be permanent and powerful. Take the BBC as an example. Its public service arm recently launched a swath of web sites, based around programmes as diverse as Blue Peter, Teletubbies and Crimewatch. These are all at the general address www.bbc.co.uk. In addition, there is a series of web sites managed separately by commercial arm BBC Enterprises. You might expect their sites to be found at www.bbc.com, the premier spot, with a global top-level domain. But this address is occupied by a company called Boston Business Computing, based in Boston, Massachusetts. The BBC sites are to be found at www.beeb.com. Confused? Anyone who accidentally types the wrong address into their browser will be, and even though Boston Business Computing has put in a link to the BBC's Web pages at their home page, the problem is one that will not go away.

For the BBC, this issue is probably a mere irritant; for others the effects are more serious. Failing to get the "obvious" web address can cost businesses hard cash, not least because customers looking for a company on the Web for the first time tend to guess at the address. This is exacerbated by the fact that recent versions of Web browsers tend to auto-complete addresses; type "worldbrand" into your browser, and it may add www to the beginning and .com to the end, giving the Web address www.worldbrand.com.

So the more a domain name resembles a brand name, the better. Ideally, it should be exact and end in .com. The case is well made by the web site for the biggest blockbuster movie of all time, Titanic. If you were asked to guess at the address, you would probably offer www.titanic.com, but in fact this address was registered in 1995 to a firm from Austin, Texas, known as Titanic Entertainment. The Titanic Web site is to be found at www.titanicmovie.com.

For prospective e-businesses, there is another important issue involved: the legally thorny and potentially expensive problem of cybersquatters - companies that register web site addresses in the hope of turning in a profit on their sale.

Last year, the UK courts passed a judgement banning two men from operating through a company called One in a Million Ltd. Their business aim was to register domain names that they thought would be in demand by well- known organisations, and sell them on. They reportedly offered the domain name www.burgerking.co.uk to the Burger King chain for pounds 25,000. The case was brought by a range of household names including Marks & Spencer, BT, Sainsburys and Ladbrokes. The big guns won that case, but an appeal is pending; the cybersquatting issue itself is by no means resolved.

If the thought of litigating for the right to trade under your own name does not spur you on to register a web site address, perhaps the threat of global embarrassment will. When John Bunt of Gloucestershire had his car damaged in an automatic carwash, he sought compensation from the garage in question, managed by BP, for his damaged vehicle. When he got no joy he registered the domain www.british petroleum.co.uk and set up a web site that explained his problem. BP managed to persuade the UK central registry to suspend the domain in question, but not after a considerable amount of embarrassment to the company.

So if your company already manages an established brand, think carefully about registering a web site address - even if you don't want to use it straightaway. If creating a new brand, first check that the associated address is available. And as a parting thought, remember that to tie up a Web presence you may need to register several addresses to take account of plurals, national and international variants, hyphenation, and even obvious spoofs.