While the #MeToo movement has managed to out many abusers in the media and Hollywood, the tech industry still lags far behind.
However, it seems as though 2019 could finally be the year that reputations catch up with perpetrators in tech, as a row that has been bubbling for nearly a decade finally erupted into the public eye this week.
YoastCon is one of the biggest events in the internet marketing calendar. Now in its third year, the two-day search engine optimisation (SEO) conference has a number of sponsors including Microsoft search engine Bing. Branded by Yoast as an unmissable event with globally renowned SEO leaders sharing their expert knowledge, this year the conference was darkly overshadowed by information exposed on Twitter about its founder, Joost de Valk.
The tweets accuse de Valk, along with other industry leaders, of being central to a toxic “boys club” SEO culture that was rampant in the past.
It was not unusual for mainstream online marketing conference organisers to allow “spokesmodels” (colloquially known as “booth babes”) or women paid to entertain attendees at supposedly professional SEO events, such as the infamous SEOktoberfest. Planned to coincide with Oktoberfest in Munich, the conference appears to have heavily involved laddish drinking and partying, with Playmates even advertised as a “perk”, up until 2013. Even more alarming than this, a number of anonymous complaints of sexual misconduct have been made by women in the industry.
YoastCon, which finished yesterday, is a relatively new event and so does not have the problematic history attached to other events like SEOktoberfest. However, even though YoastCon and SEOktoberfest are separate events run by separate people, the organisers are said to be friends and attend one another’s events. Marcus Tandler for example, the man who runs SEOktoberfest, was an attendee of this week’s YoastCon and is often a keynote speaker at global online marketing conferences. Critics have said the insular nature of this industry has protected perpetrators.
Any reasonably intelligent person should respect those of us asking why this material could even still exist on the internet in 2019
A small group of concerned individuals in the SEO world have said they are becoming increasingly frustrated that this misogynistic behaviour has been so blatantly bragged about and championed. Even in this era of the #MeToo movement, there have been no real repercussions for the perpetrators. Consequently, quiet discussion among like-minded people wanting to bring this issue to light has resulted in plenty of distasteful evidence being unearthed, exposing the pervasive sexual misconduct and sexism that had long been ignored or brushed off in the industry.
The evidence was posted online yesterday as the conference began, used to hijack the #YoastCon hashtag and create a negative online media storm around the event.
Videos of top SEO executives like de Valk partying with hired Playmates as part of an SEOktoberfest conference were circulated, along with inappropriate tweets sent from the Yoast company account, and screenshots of an atrocious blog post by Marcus Tandler entitled “Merry Christmas From Me & The 9 Slutty Santas”. Accusers say this evidence highlights a sickening attitude towards women as merely sex objects.
This, however, is only the tip of the iceberg. The SEO-industry’s history is one steeped in gender prejudice, the objectification of women and sexual harassment.
One woman who was afraid of being identified said she had been ostracised and lost friends after calling out senior executives in SEO for inappropriate behaviour. Another described being pushed out of a company after refusing to visit strip clubs. The Overtake has also heard about incidents of alleged groping, sexual comments and other inappropriate behaviour, including rumours of a serious sexual assault in 2014 which was allegedly covered up.
A now-deleted review on job rating website Glassdoor mentioned an incident where a woman says a company CEO put her in a situation where she appeared semi-naked in front of colleagues against her will. The Overtake has seen the review but we have chosen not to reveal further details to protect the victim.
If you actually cared about women we wouldn’t even be having this conversation right now
Aside from the alleged sexism of the past, the gaslighting and ostracising of alleged victims is still an issue, according to digital marketing director David Cohen. “So in this case with the Yoast tweets [above], the SEO event videos with the Playmates, and years worth of women in the SEO world not being believed about harassment or abuse, any reasonably intelligent person should respect those of us asking why this material could even still exist on the internet in 2019, which still proves the stories of harassment and misogyny? Especially after all the work the SEO industry leaders have done rebranding themselves as male feminists or the true heroes of women.
“If you actually cared about women, ending the harassment, and finally tearing down the negative and dark reputation on the SEO world from the very content you created and let live for anyone to see, we wouldn’t even be having this conversation right now,” he added.
A few other “SEO rockstars” have been accused by multiple people of jumping on the feminism bandwagon solely for image purpose, while not fully acknowledging episodes of sexual misconduct that took place within their inner circle in the past. After the 2019 wave of post #metoo exposure of sexual harassment, many of the people who were associated with episodes of questionable conduct have spoken about female empowerment in the industry and have reinvented themselves as “progressives”.
To us, it is ongoing abuse to now claim to be the very voice of women that once upon a time you silenced or worse
Alleged victims have said the men, with millions of social media followers between them, are too powerful and popular to accuse directly.
One person who has publicly advocated for these women said: “From my perspective, some of us have put [our] careers on the line for this as I feel it’s the right thing to do and we’ve had the same abuse and gaslighting that was present in the 00s. Nothing has changed, despite these people claiming to be ‘progressive’. They will call others out no questions asked, but when it comes to their inner circle it’s suddenly ‘these people are all trolls’ and an all-out assault to make it go away.
“There is a whole shit show of other goings on in the past that have been covered up by these very men who now claim to be feminists. To us, it is ongoing abuse to now claim to be the very voice of women that once upon a time you silenced or worse, and we want it to be addressed,” they added.
This week the #YoastCon hashtag on Twitter has been hijacked by a number of people demanding clarity on these allegations. People commenting on the hashtag claimed they had been silenced for the past seven years and had never received answers on what really went on. No one has really been held accountable for their actions, but many have been parading themselves as feminists and advocates for women in tech.
When debate was raised and questions were asked on Twitter, many prominent names in the industry who were associated with the stories either ignored the issue or accused the people who were speaking out of being “just trolls”. The divide in the industry has become particularly toxic, with reports of a physical fight at a recent event.
The alleged victims and their supporters have said they want an “apology and accountability”. One supporter said: “We want them to stop hijacking feminism to make money and for the victims to actually feel like they can come forward. This space now where certain past offenders are still protected is not productive to this.”
Yoast has just recently developed a project to empower women within their company and appointed a new CEO, Marieke van de Rakt, who is a woman. It looks like online harassment has been discussed at this year’s YoastCon, though the questions about the behaviour of high-profile speakers have gone unanswered.
Yoast’s founder and former CEO Joost De Valk wrote a series of tweets apologising for his past behaviour the weekend before YoastCon took place.
The alleged victims have said they’ve never received an apology.
YoastCon did not reply to questions for this story.