It was a deep linking “experiment” in mobile advertising that wasn’t well received.

Over the summer, people in San Francisco researching restaurant options on their mobile devices received an unusual surprise. When users came across a mobile ad for the hugely popular reservations stalwart OpenTable, and clicked on the link to download the app, they were instead taken to an AppLovin screen that offered not killer deals at their eatery…but one hawking mobile game downloads for money.

Potential OpenTable customers were understandably baffled, because what should have been a seamless process downloading the app, and perhaps making reservations at their favorite restaurant with it, instead turned into a distracting fiasco that had nothing to do with eating but everything to do with mobile gaming.

As it turned out, the snafu was chalked up to a “deep linking,” or “retargeting personalization” experiment by mobile analytics outfit AppLovin, which was running a mobile ad campaign with OpenTable.

But here’s the rub: although OpenTable, which was bought in June by Priceline for $2.6 billion in cash, was a partner in the mobile ad campaign, they were unaware of the now maligned experiment.

AppLovin, a successful mobile analytics firm situated in the Valley, told VentureBeat that the incident was an attempt to put relevant screens in front of users clicking on the app. But in this case, users were taken to a page selling game downloads with names like Sing Karaoke, GSN Casino, and Marvel Puzzle Quest, apparently unbeknownst to OpenTable.


When OpenTable found it out about it, they ordered AppLovin to stop.

A source with knowledge of the situation said OpenTable likely had no idea of what this source called a “redirect.” “It is very hard to believe that this was OpenTable’s desired experience,” this source told VentureBeat.

This source pointed out that “redirects” in mobile ad campaigns are derided by many players in the space.

“In this case, the redirect causes an unexpected behavior for the user, which many consider spam or highjacking. When you click on the opentable icon, you expect to go to open table, not another game or experience.”

AppLovin chief executive Adam Foroughi expressed regret at how the so-called experiment ultimately turned out.

“When OpenTable gave us the feedback that they didn’t like this flow, we pulled it instantly and have discontinued it since. Anytime we hear a need from a consumer or brand we act promptly to address it,” Foroughi said in an email to VentureBeat.

Foroughi, whose startup is on track to do $100 million in revenue, added, “We ran this test (back in July) to see if we could show users more compelling content, rather than just the blank browser page that is necessary in the deep-linking process.”

An OpenTable spokesperson was not immediately available for comment.

The mobile ad space is wide open, meaning the rules are being written as the ecosystem blazes forward. There is little oversight, even from the Federal Trade Commission, which has a hard time getting its collective head around an industry that will grow from last year’s $18 billion to nearly $35 billion by the end of 2014, according to eMarketer.

And to analysts studying the nascent mobile advertising space, incidents such as this hearken back to the early days of web advertising, when users faced an incessant barrage of annoying pop-up ads that hijacked your browser and directed you to pages attempting to sell penis enlargement pills and steroids, among other garbage.

Andrew Frank of Gartner said AppLovin’s so-called “experiment” was reminiscent of the advertising world’s Stone Age.

“We’ve been through this before with early web advertising, in which these types of interstitial ads interrupted the flow between screens of the ad experience. It’s definitely one of the most interruptive experiences,” you can have, Frank said.

And it is exactly these types of experiences that quickly turn off web users, in this case, those using a mobile device trying to make a dinner reservation and not download the latest version of Candy Crush Saga, for example. Frank called the experience “jarring.”

“Advertising has to be complimentary to the experience. It can’t be noticeably detracting,” Frank said. “If interstitial content has nothing to do with the context of what it is the advertiser is trying to accomplish, the experience is even more jarring.”

Over at AppLovin, a spokesperson put together a flow chart to show what was supposed to have happened with the so-called experiment, as well as the result that turned off OpenTable app users and OpenTable itself.

“Flow as follows:

1. OpenTable ad for Foreign Cinema (screen shot is correct)

2. The ad should click to a Foreign Cinema booking (not Slanted Door as you currently have. This wouldn’t happen w/ our platform).

3. The app’s wall. The app wall only opens up when the user returns to her browser at a later time. It was never part of the flow that the app wall hosted on AppLovin opens up after an ad is shown.”

There’s good news here. The fact AppLovin acknowledged the issue and expressed contrition shows that mobile companies, some of them anyway, are paying attention to both client and mobile user needs.

In other words, examples such as this one have created a dialogue. And in the emerging mobile ad sector, with its breakneck growth and nearly 500 operators competing in the space, dialogue is a good thing.

AppLovin apparently agrees.

“We are a marketing and analytics company, and our job is to iterate on user experience. We aspire to continually improve the mobile experience for the brands we work with and their consumers,” AppLovin’s Foroughi said.