A Day in the Life: Director of SEO and Organic Search Ilhaam Ismail
Written by Bannon Puckett on Mar 16, 2021
Related content: Diversity And Inclusion
This story is a part of our “A Day in the Life” series that highlights the career journeys of 2U employees across the world. Throughout March, we’re celebrating Women’s History Month and featuring members of one of our Business Resource Networks: the Womxn’s Alliance Network (W.A.N.).
Keywords and meta tags. Queries and schema. Algorithms, featured snippets, and the highly coveted “position zero.”
For Ilhaam Ismail, director of SEO and organic search at 2U, these peculiar terms are standard concepts she strategizes on every day.
After earning an Honours BA in Psychology from South Africa’s University of the Western Cape, Ilhaam had planned to get licensed as a mental health counselor. Upon completing her board exam, however, she quickly realized the services she could offer as a psychologist were a privilege that only a small portion of the population can afford. “People here face far greater challenges,” she says, “like straddling the breadline to feed their families.”
While working as a receptionist at a publishing house to pay off her post-grad tuition, Ilhaam switched gears, opting to complete a journalism certificate, which then led to an internship at a magazine. The year was 2010, “when print media first started to interface with the ‘threat’ of digital,” she recalls. That’s when Ilhaam was introduced to the concept of search engine optimization (SEO) and, as she describes, “fell down a rabbit hole for about two years” to teach herself a new discipline.
A first-generation graduate, Ilhaam is proud to have made it through university while working two jobs and stumbling upon her now-chosen career. Come June, she’ll be celebrating five years at 2U Cape Town.
Read on to learn more about Ilhaam’s 2U journey so far, her work in the Marketing department focused on short courses, her insight into how women are celebrated in South Africa compared to in the U.S., and much more.
Why did you join GetSmarter (which was acquired by 2U in 2017)? What is it about the company that sparked your interest?
The prospect of mobilising an offering like education held a far greater appeal than the pharmaceuticals spread I was working on in my role at an SEO agency, hence the immediate interest when the opportunity to work at GetSmarter arose. Upon interviewing, I was completely taken by the culture and the “vibe” at the Cape Town campus.
As director of SEO and organic search, how would you explain the value of SEO?
SEO is the practise of leveraging digital assets—like the GetSmarter website and blog—for organic search opportunities aligned with our short course offerings, with the goal of leading users into what we call the “conversion funnel.” Organic search is a function of search engines that rely on algorithms to serve searchers with the most credible, highest-quality content relevant to their search. The output is the component of the search engine results page that you cannot pay to be on. Visibility here depends on compliance with the criteria for quality, credible content.
How would you describe your day-to-day role on the Marketing team?
My day-to-day is focused on using the various data points available to understand search engine algorithms and the impact that changes within our ecosystem have on our organic search visibility and conversion rates. As a team, we focus on micro and macro effects to the visibility of each of the short courses we power. Additionally, a lot of time is spent consulting on other departmental projects on the opportunity and/or risk to our current visibility.
Lastly, another part of my role is to conceptualize the medium- and long-term strategy for expanding on our organic efforts.
From Ilhaam's SEO team, a pre-pandemic birthday surprise
What do you find most rewarding and challenging about your job?
I enjoy data-based problem solving—that is probably my favourite part of my job. SEO is often a big puzzle. Figuring out how the pieces fit, in the context of our business within the industry and information verticals we play in, is great fun. The most challenging is perhaps getting alignment and buy-in to move the pieces in the way I think is best!
What’s your favorite part about working at 2U?
The people—they’re honestly the best part. At 2U Cape Town, everyone cares intensely about what they do. They all bring their A-game, and it’s a privilege to work amongst them. They’re also super nice, the bunch of them.
Why did you join 2U’s Womxn’s Alliance Network (W.A.N.)?
Supporting movements to mobilise change where change is needed is important to me, which is why I became a part of the network. So far, I’ve been active in South Africa-based equity discussions in the group. Members such as Nazley Brooks have shown me just how powerful senior female role models can be for driving the right messages around women in the workplace. This has inspired me to do my part.
I’m also eager to play a role in supporting new mothers across the organisation, in order to help them navigate fears we have about how we'll be perceived because of our responsibilities. I feel I have a role to play in the circles I identify with to shamelessly prove that I can be both an asset to the business and an attentive mom.
Ilhaam in self-described "mother-of-three mode"
While March is Women’s History Month in the U.S., South Africa commemorates Women’s Month in August, with August 9 in particular celebrated as National Women’s Day. What historic milestones for women have been most meaningful to you?
In South Africa, National Women’s Day is a public holiday acknowledging all of the generations of women who have struggled to form the foundation of equality in our country. Specifically, the day commemorates a 1956 march by thousands of women to Pretoria, where they petitioned laws at the time requiring Black South Africans to carry a special ID, which essentially served to keep people segregated in the era of Apartheid.
This was the first time women collected in an organised way to fight back. It’s probably one of the most moving moments in our history, and as a South African woman, I’m incredibly proud (and pained) that it is a part of my heritage. At a time when people were fighting for basic human rights, the rights of women were nowhere near the table—forget on the table! And yet, there they were, for everyone. This was such a powerful movement and pivotal moment that mobilised something so much bigger. It was a cry for freedom en masse that, I have no doubt, played a massive role in the liberties we have as people of colour and as women.
For 2021, the theme of Women’s History Month in the U.S. is “Valiant Women of the Vote: Refusing to be Silenced.” In your life, how do you refuse to be silenced?
I have no trouble at all with the refusal of silence. I am very vocal about the layers of inequality embedded into the way we operate as a people. Patriarchy is a sickness and is embedded so deeply into the fibres of society that, when challenged, even women reject it on grounds that it degrades moral fibre to change. It is a part of our identity to be oppressed as women. While we’ve made massive ground, we have a long way to go. I have an aggressive drive to ensure my daughter is not inhibited by this brokenness.
Ilhaam (right) at the Women's Day March to raise awareness on femicide
What has it been like balancing work and family and life right now amid a pandemic? What are your biggest challenges and successes with striking that balance while working remotely from home?
Goodness, the juggle has been real! When lockdown began and schools were entirely closed, it was “crazy town” in my head. Homeschooling and cooking three meals a day for a family of five—homemaking and “momming”—while fulfilling my work remit was an interesting challenge, one that, despite feeling insurmountable, I overcame. There are so many negatives to lockdown, but among the positives is that I get to spend so much time with my young children. It’s time I’d probably never have spent with them had it not been for a pandemic. I get to play a role in my six-year-old’s learning that I’ll likely never get to play ever again (post-apocalypse). We have grown as a family.
Striking a balance is always hard, more so now than ever. I try to be diligent about time allocations and create space for myself in my calendar—because who has time for self-care when you’re juggling kids, homemaking, and SEO for a thriving business? I try, but more often than not I’m simply rolling with the punches and doing my best to honour those bits most important to me at work and at home.
Being at 2U has likely made the juggle way easier than most others have endured because I’ve had the freedom to be a mom when I needed to be, to be a teacher when I needed to be, and even to fall apart when that was needed. And this has all been with the support of my managers, during a time that’s been difficult for everyone.
Out of everything you’ve done at 2U so far, what are you most proud of?
There are a few things! When I started at GetSmarter, there was no SEO function. I’ve largely built the short course SEO infrastructure and the team from the ground up.
I’m very proud of the team. They are such a clever bunch, deeply knowledgeable on their subject matter—and so passionate about SEO that sometimes I have to remind them to stop working! I’m also incredibly proud that I work at an organisation where I was promoted to head of department when I was five months pregnant with my third child.
What advice would you give to someone just starting at 2U?
Be yourself! And work hard. Everyone is bringing their A-game, so you’ll stand out if you don’t. But also, don’t forget to switch off. The pace is incredible here at 2U; there is always so much going on. Keep pace, but remember to switch off when the day is done. Enjoy!