With automated tagging, Web links can get wild

It wasn't what anyone expected to see while perusing a news article.

But there, in the final paragraph of an online story about the call girl involved in the Eliot Spitzer scandal, Yahoo's automated system was inviting readers to browse through photos of underage girls.

Yahoo Shortcuts, which more frequently offers to help readers search for news and websites on topics like "California" or "President Bush," had in this case highlighted the words "underage girls." Readers who passed their mouse over the phrase in The Associated Press story were shown a pop-up window filled with images from Flickr, Yahoo's photo-sharing website.

Some of the pictures showed nothing untoward, while several captions claimed that attached photos showed underage drinking. Clicking on the pop-up window yielded more-disturbing results: hundreds of images, including some of a girl or woman in pigtails, knee socks and lingerie. One photo showed a faceless female body, naked.

The misstep, which happened in early July, was noted on a technology blog. Editors at the AP contacted Yahoo, where a spokeswoman said the company quickly removed the link. Several of the more provocative photos were apparently taken off of Flickr.

The phrase "underage girls," now added to a list of thousands of previously blocked terms, will never again generate a Yahoo Shortcut, the company said. But the incident highlights how difficult it can be for publishers to keep a tight rein on their sites in this age of user-generated content.

Internet publishers are increasingly relying on automated systems to tag phrases of interest and, in some cases, to provide links to other sites. With legions of YouTube users, Flickr photographers and anonymous bloggers posting floods of their own, largely unsupervised material, it's impossible for publishers using automation to exercise total control.

"No matter how sophisticated you make these automated systems, you're not going to make them perfect, and all you can really strive for is to tune them as you go along," said Lauren Weinstein, co-founder of People for Internet Responsibility. Still, he said, in this case "it's pretty clear there was a lapse in terms of the quality control of Yahoo's keyword list."

It's unclear how, exactly, "underage girls" was selected as a useful link. Yahoo Shortcuts "leverages a combination of algorithmic and editorial processes to identify current, relevant and popular terms," said spokeswoman Meagan Busath. Among the factors the system considers: terms entered into Yahoo's search engine.

That raises the unsavory prospect that "underage girls" could be among the most popular searches on Yahoo, said Chris Sherman, executive editor of the industry website Search Engine Land.

But he said it's more likely a combination of factors was at play. Perhaps a similar phrase is a popular search term, or perhaps the exploitation of young women has become a hot news topic. The selection of the phrase could also have been driven by its relevance to the story at hand — after all, the AP article was about how Ashley Dupre had dropped a lawsuit that claimed she was underage when she appeared in a Girls Gone Wild video.

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