Media & Entertainment

Mobile Web Surfers Again Facing Unexpected Redirects To App Store, Native Apps

Comment

Image Credits:

Remember the early days of web surfing? You’d be happily browsing through your favorite sites, clicking links – then, boom! – your screen was littered with pop-up advertisements! The problem became so prevalent, people began installing pop-up blocking software on their PCs as a solution to the ongoing annoyance. Today, as users make the transition to mobile, a new irritation is beginning to take hold – web links that unexpectedly redirect you from your browser to the app store, or even those that immediately launch mobile apps themselves.

And this time, there’s no third-party solution you can use to address the problem. Instead, mobile consumers will have to rely on companies like Apple and Google to shut down the loopholes that advertisers and others are now abusing. But sometimes, there’s nothing the OS makers themselves can even do about the problem, it seems.

The Return Of The Auto-Redirect Ad

We first made mention of this problem last year when a number of mobile users began to experience problems that involved them automatically being redirected to the iTunes App Store or Google Play when they were only trying to click a link and read a news article, for example, or use one of the mobile apps they already had installed on their phone.

At the time, a number of high-profile companies were impacted by the problem, including Imgur, the AP, NBC, Hearst properties, various newspaper sites and blogs, eBay, Perez Hilton, SomethingAwful, WeatherUnderground, TwitPic, Cheezburger.com, Slickdeals, Twitchy, NHL, and many others. And unfortunately, it wasn’t the first time this sort of abuse took place, either – it just came to a head because so many popular online destinations were affected around the same time.

The problem had to do with shady third-party ad networks that would run auto-redirecting ads on the sites and apps, which were hard for the properties themselves to detect or block because the advertisers would sometimes change their ad to behave this way after it was approved. Plus, some networks would sometimes buy inventory from others, blurring the line as to who’s responsible for the rogue ads in the first place.

Apple addressed this particular problem with an updated beta release of iOS 8 last year, preventing ads from automatically redirecting people to the App Store without user interaction first taking place.

But in recent days, the same problem has popped up again. According to information provided by AraLabs, which researches advertising fraud, they identified another case of the infamous automatic App Store redirect in the wild. That seems to indicate the fix provided by Apple either wasn’t fully viable (or it never actually made it into the full iOS 8 release).

The current redirect they uncovered is being used by Zynga, which redirects users to their apps from online ads. In one example, they found that Slate was one of the affected publishers. They were serving an ad hosted on the AppNexus platform which was causing the problem. (AppNexus has since pulled the offending ad, and is following up with Clove Network, the responsible ad network).

AraLabs details the technique involved with the auto-redirect in a blog post on its site, which is fairly technical to delve into here. But company CTO Hadi Shiravi explains to us that the technique itself is still “very much working” and can be used by any ad network today.

“It would be extremely difficult to solve this problem on Apple’s side since differentiating between this redirect and other redirects is not trivial,” he also notes.

AraLabs isn’t the only one to uncover the resurgence of this nasty ad problem.

A post on the blog 9to5Mac this week also referenced the return of the auto-redirect advertisements, and even included a video of the issue in action. Writes Benjamin Mayo for the site, “I am now experiencing this myself, and it makes browsing on the iPhone unusable. Browsing to websites such as Reddit and Reuters and others now automatically open the App Store. In many cases, there is no way for me to read the actual content on the pages,” he says.

Shiravi confirms that what Mayo is seeing are the auto-redirect ads AraLabs had described. And because this is an ad network problem, it’s going to be difficult for Apple to do anything to fix it, he says.

Advertisers Aren’t The Only Ones Forcing Web Users Into Native Apps

Unfortunately, advertisers aren’t the only ones abusing the ability to use redirects to take web surfers directly to mobile applications unexpectedly. In some cases, businesses themselves have taken advantage of new technologies to push mobile web users into their native apps (as opposed to the app store app), even when that wasn’t the users’ intent.

According to mobile ad technology firm Tapstream, Pandora last year began abusing Android’s “intents,” which allowed them to send mobile users who visited Pandora.com to their native application instead. Google noticed the problem and filed it as a bug. But it wasn’t really a bug – Pandora was just taking advantage of technology that allowed it to identify who already had the app installed on their phone, then take them straight into the native mobile app.

Google confirms to us it has just addressed this specific problem in the latest release of its mobile Chrome browser, which no longer allows these sorts of links (deeplinks, as they’re called) to be triggered by a web page unless there’s been some sort of user interaction first. That means that an unsuspecting web surfer won’t be able to type in a search box, then find themselves automatically shuffled off into a mobile app, but it doesn’t mean that Google is ending support for deep linking.

Google search results on mobile today include links that take Android users directly to pages within mobile applications as the company is working to make a transition from being a company that organizes and makes searchable the worldwide web to one that indexes the world of mobile apps and the information they contain. But in these cases, Google says the links are highlighted as being those that take users to apps – users aren’t surprised by those clicks. (Well, they might be, but at least they’re being disclosed.)

Chrome developer advocate Paul Kinlan describes the company’s solution to this redirect problem in technical detail, also explaining Google’s philosophy behind the matter.

“If a user enters a URL into the address bar of the system, then the intention of the user is to visit the page in question,” he says. “We don’t believe that the user intended to go to the app. Ergo, redirecting the user to the app is a poor user experience.”

While businesses themselves pushing people to their mobile app isn’t quite as abusive as the above-mentioned auto-redirect ads, it can still be a jarring experience for mobile users – which is why it’s a good thing that Google addressed the problem with the changes to Chrome. However, as mobile becomes an increasingly important platform for businesses in general, their desire to push web surfers to native mobile experiences will continue. And that means they’ll likely find other loopholes to exploit in the future. Stay tuned.

More TechCrunch

Welcome back to TechCrunch’s Week in Review. This week had two major events from OpenAI and Google. OpenAI’s spring update event saw the reveal of its new model, GPT-4o, which…

OpenAI and Google lay out their competing AI visions

Expedia says Rathi Murthy and Sreenivas Rachamadugu, respectively its CTO and senior vice president of core services product & engineering, are no longer employed at the travel booking company. In…

Expedia says two execs dismissed after ‘violation of company policy’

When Jeffrey Wang posted to X asking if anyone wanted to go in on an order of fancy-but-affordable office nap pods, he didn’t expect the post to go viral.

With AI startups booming, nap pods and Silicon Valley hustle culture are back

OpenAI’s Superalignment team, responsible for developing ways to govern and steer “superintelligent” AI systems, was promised 20% of the company’s compute resources, according to a person from that team. But…

OpenAI created a team to control ‘superintelligent’ AI — then let it wither, source says

A new crop of early-stage startups — along with some recent VC investments — illustrates a niche emerging in the autonomous vehicle technology sector. Unlike the companies bringing robotaxis to…

VCs and the military are fueling self-driving startups that don’t need roads

When the founders of Sagetap, Sahil Khanna and Kevin Hughes, started working at early-stage enterprise software startups, they were surprised to find that the companies they worked at were trying…

Deal Dive: Sagetap looks to bring enterprise software sales into the 21st century

Keeping up with an industry as fast-moving as AI is a tall order. So until an AI can do it for you, here’s a handy roundup of recent stories in the world…

This Week in AI: OpenAI moves away from safety

After Apple loosened its App Store guidelines to permit game emulators, the retro game emulator Delta — an app 10 years in the making — hit the top of the…

Adobe comes after indie game emulator Delta for copying its logo

Meta is once again taking on its competitors by developing a feature that borrows concepts from others — in this case, BeReal and Snapchat. The company is developing a feature…

Meta’s latest experiment borrows from BeReal’s and Snapchat’s core ideas

Welcome to Startups Weekly! We’ve been drowning in AI news this week, with Google’s I/O setting the pace. And Elon Musk rages against the machine.

Startups Weekly: It’s the dawning of the age of AI — plus,  Musk is raging against the machine

IndieBio’s Bay Area incubator is about to debut its 15th cohort of biotech startups. We took special note of a few, which were making some major, bordering on ludicrous, claims…

IndieBio’s SF incubator lineup is making some wild biotech promises

YouTube TV has announced that its multiview feature for watching four streams at once is now available on Android phones and tablets. The Android launch comes two months after YouTube…

YouTube TV’s ‘multiview’ feature is now available on Android phones and tablets

Featured Article

Two Santa Cruz students uncover security bug that could let millions do their laundry for free

CSC ServiceWorks provides laundry machines to thousands of residential homes and universities, but the company ignored requests to fix a security bug.

1 day ago
Two Santa Cruz students uncover security bug that could let millions do their laundry for free

TechCrunch Disrupt 2024 is just around the corner, and the buzz is palpable. But what if we told you there’s a chance for you to not just attend, but also…

Harness the TechCrunch Effect: Host a Side Event at Disrupt 2024

Decks are all about telling a compelling story and Goodcarbon does a good job on that front. But there’s important information missing too.

Pitch Deck Teardown: Goodcarbon’s $5.5M seed deck

Slack is making it difficult for its customers if they want the company to stop using its data for model training.

Slack under attack over sneaky AI training policy

A Texas-based company that provides health insurance and benefit plans disclosed a data breach affecting almost 2.5 million people, some of whom had their Social Security number stolen. WebTPA said…

Healthcare company WebTPA discloses breach affecting 2.5 million people

Featured Article

Microsoft dodges UK antitrust scrutiny over its Mistral AI stake

Microsoft won’t be facing antitrust scrutiny in the U.K. over its recent investment into French AI startup Mistral AI.

1 day ago
Microsoft dodges UK antitrust scrutiny over its Mistral AI stake

Ember has partnered with HSBC in the U.K. so that the bank’s business customers can access Ember’s services from their online accounts.

Embedded finance is still trendy as accounting automation startup Ember partners with HSBC UK

Kudos uses AI to figure out consumer spending habits so it can then provide more personalized financial advice, like maximizing rewards and utilizing credit effectively.

Kudos lands $10M for an AI smart wallet that picks the best credit card for purchases

The EU’s warning comes after Microsoft failed to respond to a legally binding request for information that focused on its generative AI tools.

EU warns Microsoft it could be fined billions over missing GenAI risk info

The prospects for troubled banking-as-a-service startup Synapse have gone from bad to worse this week after a United States Trustee filed an emergency motion on Wednesday.  The trustee is asking…

A US Trustee wants troubled fintech Synapse to be liquidated via Chapter 7 bankruptcy, cites ‘gross mismanagement’

U.K.-based Seraphim Space is spinning up its 13th accelerator program, with nine participating companies working on a range of tech from propulsion to in-space manufacturing and space situational awareness. The…

Seraphim’s latest space accelerator welcomes nine companies

OpenAI has reached a deal with Reddit to use the social news site’s data for training AI models. In a blog post on OpenAI’s press relations site, the company said…

OpenAI inks deal to train AI on Reddit data

X users will now be able to discover posts from new Communities that are trending directly from an Explore tab within the section.

X pushes more users to Communities

For Mark Zuckerberg’s 40th birthday, his wife got him a photoshoot. Zuckerberg gives the camera a sly smile as he sits amid a carefully crafted re-creation of his childhood bedroom.…

Mark Zuckerberg’s makeover: Midlife crisis or carefully crafted rebrand?

Strava announced a slew of features, including AI to weed out leaderboard cheats, a new ‘family’ subscription plan, dark mode and more.

Strava taps AI to weed out leaderboard cheats, unveils ‘family’ plan, dark mode and more

We all fall down sometimes. Astronauts are no exception. You need to be in peak physical condition for space travel, but bulky space suits and lower gravity levels can be…

Astronauts fall over. Robotic limbs can help them back up.

Microsoft will launch its custom Cobalt 100 chips to customers as a public preview at its Build conference next week, TechCrunch has learned. In an analyst briefing ahead of Build,…

Microsoft’s custom Cobalt chips will come to Azure next week

What a wild week for transportation news! It was a smorgasbord of news that seemed to touch every sector and theme in transportation.

Tesla keeps cutting jobs and the feds probe Waymo