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

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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.

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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.