If the system was merely checking whether Flickr had a sufficient number of relevant results, the answer apparently would have been yes. Although Busath notes that Flickr users and employees monitor the site's content and report problematic images, a search of the site for the words "underage girls" turned up 428 photos.
Any technology has its hiccups as engineers refine it, and over the years automated content has occasionally offered offense. In one recent flub, a Yahoo photo collection about Osama bin Laden began with a picture of Sen. Barack Obama. There was nothing wrong with the programming (the senator had been at a hearing about the al-Qaeda leader, and his photo was the most recent in the collection), but Yahoo rewrote its programming code to block the same thing from happening again, a spokesman said.
In a widely publicized incident in the early days of Google's AdSense system, the service placed an ad for luggage next to a news story about a murder victim whose body was stuffed into a suitcase.
Google has since enhanced its technology to detect when sites contain "sensitive content," said spokesman Daniel Rubin. Those pages often receive public service announcements in place of ads, he said.
"We are really only in the infancy of this kind of automated analysis," said Weinstein. "I'm sure it's going to be expanding greatly, not just in volume but in sophistication."
Already, Yahoo displays its Shortcuts on stories hosted by Yahoo News from U.S. sources ranging from Time magazine to E! Online. Since 2006, The New York Times' site has used an automated system to tag key words within its stories, directing readers to archived stories about the topics. It also uses automated technology to carefully vet blogs from within its site, said Chief Technology Officer Marc Frons.
Further expanding that practice to automatically link out to additional sites is something the Times might consider in the future, Frons said. He noted, however, that the links would have to be carefully selected.
"The quality of the content and the information is paramount," he said. "You want to make sure you're striking the right balance between giving your readers everything the Web has to offer with making sure they're getting the right information and the relevant information."
Perhaps the biggest short-term goal for automated tagging is to create a richer browsing experience for Web users, while offering publishers an opportunity for profit, as the technology is used to link to commercial sites. For example, the word "laptop" in an article could be linked to Best Buy's Web page.
For those sites considering expanding their use of the technology, the biggest question may be whether Web users will embrace the presence of more links or whether they'll become fed up with something that could become as annoying — and as irrelevant to them — as pop-up ads.
"If it does succeed, it's going to be done in a way that's subtle enough that it's there for people who want it," Sherman said, "but it's not going to be intrusive for people who don't."