YoastCon Overshadowed by Twitter Storm: Joost de Valk, SEO Industry Leaders Called Out for Objectifying Women

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The third edition of YoastCon kicked off today in Nijmegen, the Netherlands, but for those following remotely the conference has been overshadowed by a discussion that erupted on the #yoastcon hashtag prior to the event. Several parties began circulating tweets and unsavory videos involving Joost de Valk, for which he has since publicly apologized.

The story was complicated and confusing to follow, as many of these decade-old tweets were deleted and the videos made private by the websites that are hosting them. The parties who were publishing screenshots from archive.org alleged that de Valk was sexually harassing women in the SEO industry.

One of the women to whom some of the tweets were directed has publicly stated that she did not perceive them as harassment and that the tweets were taken out of context.

de Valk responded yesterday with a public apology, acknowledging the tweets and videos.

He also provided a statement to the Tavern with more context on the after party videos.

“The videos are of an event I’ve attended over the last decade called SEOktoberfest, which is an SEO conference at Oktoberfest,” de Valk said. “I’m honestly ashamed of those videos when I see them now… It looks bad and I wouldn’t behave like that now, but I don’t think anything I did myself at those events was ever out of line.”

Marieke van de Rakt, who recently took on the role of CEO of Yoast, said she thought the tweets were brought to public attention in retaliation for the company announcing a project to empower women working at Yoast. de Valk left the CEO role to focus on product development at Yoast and his new role of Marketing and Communications Lead at WordPress.org.

I feel like it started after I was announced CEO and later on talked about a project to empower women working at Yoast. I got some really upsetting tweets. After that it started focusing on #yoastcon. It seems like they want to show the hypocrisy in our statements about women. I never spoke at SEO events before, though I have been to SEOktoberfest. It felt totally welcoming back then. That being said, the pictures and movies aren’t something I particularly enjoy watching. I do think they’re bad, but also a bit out of context. The environment at Yoast is nothing like that. And although my husband likes to party (as do I), I feel he’s always been a strong believer in equal rights and opportunities. I think we all make mistakes and learn from them. At Yoast, we’re really trying to improve inequality with both the diversity fund and my empowerment project.

For those watching the #yoastcon hashtag, the way the situation unfolded it almost seemed like a coordinated personal attack on de Valk, especially given how the SEOktoberfest videos were spliced together with the YoastCon promotional videos. David Cohen, a Philadelphia-based Digital Marketing Director who previously worked at a large SEO agency, started the conversation by publishing de Valk’s old tweets that he had found years ago when researching Yoast and its founder.

“As far as the tweets from Joost are concerned, I’ve known about them since 2014,” Cohen said. “I just never knew what to do with them or how to proceed questioning why that behavior was perfectly acceptable for him.

“As far as the harassment and abuse in the SEO industry, particularly at the SEO conferences, I’ve known about this since 2011 after seeing it firsthand while working at a large SEO agency in Philly, Seer Interactive.”

Cohen said that he began publicly criticizing people he calls “SEO celebs” in 2014, for “saying they are against the SEO harassment and abuse, claiming to be ‘male feminists,’ yet knowingly covering up the abuse and enabling the abusers who happen to also be their friends, peers, colleagues, etc.”

While the discussion on the #yoastcon hashtag seems centered around de Valk’s admitted indiscretions, Cohen said his objective in publicizing the old tweets goes beyond de Valk. He’s calling out other leaders in the industry who he alleges have harassed and abused women for years.

“This started a solo mission to take action as a messenger of questions for the group of SEOs most prominent figures who hold the power of influence over the industry about the 10+ year ongoing issue of alleged harassment and abuse of women in the SEO world, particularly at SEO conferences between 2009 and 2012 era.”

Cohen said the timing with YoastCon was “a mission looking for direct and public answers on this topic once and for all while they were all gathered together at the event.” He began tweeting about these issues well before the event and was using the #yoastcon hashtag to call out other SEO industry leaders for the past few months.

When asked about his motive, Cohen said he simply wants answers from de Valk, Rand Fishkin, his wife Geraldine, John Doherty, Martin MacDonald, Marcus Tandler, and others regarding what he perceives to be hypocrisy in the SEO industry.

“Why has it been totally cool for the SEO celebs, rock stars, ninjas, and conference speakers to be misogynists, to objectify and sexualize women, to hire Playmates for their SEO events, and to engage in behavior that would easily be classified as ‘toxic masculinity?’” Cohen said. He claims that industry leaders have been covering up harassment and abuse that they have known about and have refused to help the women who have been abused. Cohen and several others who have been circulating the tweets claim that victims of this abuse have been contacting them to share their stories but have not yet gone public with them.

“I chose to act on this now because I wanted answers to two questions from specific people: 1. Do you know of alleged harassment or abuse because someone went to you directly and told their story? And if so, did you refuse to use your power and influence to help them at the risk of your own professional and personal interests?” Cohen said.

“As for Joost, going with the ‘if I offended anyone’ apology approach is empty and lacks personal accountability for behaviors that are completely misaligned with words. He had to respond publicly. But the question remains open – why?”

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