Out of the starting gates, Microsoft's Bing is off to an early start

Microsoft's search (ahem, decision) engine is running two days before scheduled launch

Two days earlier than expected, Microsoft Corp. had its new search engine - Bing - up and running.

And Bing appears to be working as advertised so far today. Queries lead to search result pages. Several links included in search results quickly led to the right pages. The site was lively, offering up categories of searches, images and video.

Microsoft Bing, according to some analysts, appears to be off to a good start.

While going live a couple of days early may not stick in people's minds over the long run, Miocrosoft does benefit by not being late.

"Being late would have been bad," said Andrew Frank, a research vice president at Gartner, Inc. "I don't think a few days early makes a lot of difference. There hasn't been a lot of chatter about it."

After weeks of speculation and online chatter, Microsoft last week took the wraps off Bing, which is the update to its far-from-beloved Microsoft Live Search. The update, which was code-named Kumo, comes with a phalanx of related services, like Bing Travel, Bing Cashback and Bing Maps for Enterprise. Paired with the company's hefty marketing muscle, the new service is expected to help Microsoft take on search behemoth Google Inc.

Trying to get away from the search engine moniker, Microsoft officials are calling the new offering a "decision engine." It's designed to help people search the Web more intelligently - to find the right information that can aid them in making decisions.

"I think the benefits are subtle," said Frank. "I don't think they jump right out at you when you first start using it. It takes a while to appreciate the difference and I think the difference is a lot more pronounced in certain categories, like travel. Microsoft has focused on some specific categories, especially for 'decision uses,' as they call it. But you have to happen upon a lot of this to discover it."

Frank noted that Bing makes some features accessible in the margins of the search results. Users, for instance, might be able to roll over a result in the margin and get pop-ups that lead to more information. The features, of course, aren't hidden, but they're not jumping out at users, either.

Dan Olds, principal analyst at Gabriel Consulting Group, said he's been using the new search engine this morning and so far he's been getting some useful information from it.

"It pulls up some different results than Google does," noted Olds. "They're using different algorithms so that isn't surprising. Though, on very focused searches, the results are very similar."

Olds said he likes the search history and related links sections.

"A lot of times I'm looking to track down some fairly arcane data and when I hit a blind alley, it's useful to be able to see some of the other searches I've run without having to hit "back" 100 times," he added. "The related links listing is helpful because it gives me some alternate links that may be closer to what I'm looking for, or that may give me additional information that I didn't originally search for."

With Google scheduled to make a search announcement on tomorrow - following on the heels of the Google Wave announcement late last week - analysts say Microsoft may have a hard time dominating headlines on the topic and getting some early traction for Bing.

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