Keyword difficulty stands out as the most crucial aspect common in all successful content marketing and SEO campaigns. This is largely due to its vital role in the strategic and comprehensive keyword research process. While there are several important factors to evaluate during keyword research, keyword difficulty, closely followed by search volume, garners the highest importance. The fundamental question remains: what is keyword difficulty, and how does it ensure the success of your search engine optimization (SEO) strategy? Read on to discover the answer.
- Keyword difficulty is a representation of how difficult (or easy) it is to rank for a certain keyword on Google and other search engines.
- You may see keyword difficulty used as either a general concept or an actual metric with scores ranging from 0–100. Having a score helps you understand keyword difficulty and if it’s possible for your site to rank for a specific keyword.
- Knowing keyword difficulty helps businesses set realistic expectations regarding the effort required in order to rank higher in search engine results pages (SERPs).
- Keyword difficulty metrics are calculated differently depending on the SEO platform you use, and they take into account factors such as domain authority, backlink quality/quantity of competing URLs, number of referring domains, and intent.
Keyword Difficulty Definition
Keyword difficulty represents how difficult (or easy) it is to rank for a specific keyword on a search engine like Google.
You can also look at it as the degree of keyword competition. The higher the keyword’s difficulty, the more competition it will likely have and the harder it will be to secure a spot on the first search engine results page for that keyword.
It’s worth pointing out that keyword difficulty can be used as a general term that represents the overall concept of ranking difficulty, or it can be used as an actual metric with a scale of 0 to 100. That being said, in most cases, the term is used to represent a keyword difficulty metric you can find in popular SEO tools such as Ahrefs, Moz, and Semrush, where keywords are assigned difficulty scores.
Why Is Keyword Difficulty Important?
Keyword difficulty is important because it helps you set realistic expectations for your SEO strategy in regard to the amount of time and effort you need to invest in trying to rank for a particular keyword. Additionally, keyword difficulty helps you differentiate between efficient keywords that are easy to rank for and competitive keywords that have such a high difficulty score they would not be worth your time.
Having said that, we have to point out that the value of keyword difficulty, as a metric or even a concept, varies from one business to another. Large organizations with high domain authority tend to rank well in Google’s organic search results, regardless of keyword difficulty. Such organizations are more concerned with reaching as many people as they can, which is why they focus on other keyword-related metrics, such as search volume.
Meanwhile, small businesses and startups tend to have a hard time ranking for high-difficulty keywords. This is why knowing keyword difficulty is of more value to them than large, well-established entities.
How Is Keyword Difficulty Calculated?
You can gauge a keyword’s difficulty using almost any keyword research tool available. Keep in mind, however, that each tool goes about determining keyword difficulty differently. In fact, if you analyze a given keyword on several different SEO platforms, you’ll find that each platform assigns the analyzed keyword a different difficulty score.
The reason behind that is that different SEO platforms have various criteria for keyword difficulty. One tool might emphasize the domain authority and page authority of competing sites, whereas another tool might consider the number of competing URLs.
Ahrefs, for instance, puts a lot of emphasis on links, where the more backlinks a top-ranking page has, the higher the associated keyword difficulty score is.
The Ahrefs keyword difficulty scale is as follows:
- Score of 0–10: Easy
- Score of 11–30: Medium
- Score of 31–70: Hard
- Score of 71–100: Super Hard
On the other hand, an SEO platform like Semrush looks at the authority of ranking pages, as well as the number and quality of their backlinks.
The SEMRush keyword difficulty scale is as follows:
- Score of 0–14: Very Easy
- Score of 15–29: Easy
- Score of 30–49: Possible
- Score of 50–69: Difficult
- Score of 70–84: Hard
- Score of 85–100:Very Hard
On that account, let’s go over the most influential factors when it comes to assessing keyword difficulty.
Domain Authority of Competing Sites
Before attempting to rank for a given keyword, you must first conduct a competitor analysis. You’ll need to know the domain authority of competing sites and compare it to that of your site.
If you’re going up against competitors with high domain authority, it will be hard to outrank them, especially if your website has a low domain authority. The only scenario in which competing against high-authority domains can be fruitful is if you’re competing with a high-authority domain yourself.
On the other hand, if a given keyword doesn’t have that many high-authority competitors, chances are you can secure a high ranking for that keyword. It’s worth pointing out that most tools enable you to check the domain authority — as well as page authority — of your competitors with just a few clicks.
Backlink Quality and Quantity of Competing URLs
Building quality backlinks is one of the most important aspects of search engine optimization. The healthier your backlink profile, the higher your domain authority will be and the higher your pages will rank. When a website that is not your own links to your site, this is considered a backlink. The more backlinks you acquire, the more Google views your website as a credible source in your niche.
The thing about backlinks, however, is that they’re all about quality. One backlink from a high-authority site is much more powerful than 10 links from different low-authority sites. So, how do you acquire more backlinks? There are numerous link-building strategies that you can resort to, but the most fundamental strategy is to provide high-quality content.
If the quality of your content isn’t up to par with respect to other competing pages, your chances of ranking high in the SERPs are slim, regardless of your domain authority. To provide better content than your competitors, you must provide more value in the form of unique data, new studies, personalized visuals and infographics, and a greater depth of knowledge, among others.
The quantity of competing URLs plays a major role here. If you’re up against a handful of industry leaders, then you’re looking at a keyword with a high difficulty level. In this case, ask yourself: Will I be able to provide the same level of expertise as competing URLs? Can I provide better content quality? If the answer is no, then you’re better off targeting an easier keyword. You can perform a backlink audit to help keep track of your links and their quality.
Search Intent of Your Target Keywords
Another important aspect of ranking on Google SERPs is the ability to investigate and address the intent of the keyword you’re targeting. The term ‘search intent’ refers to the type of content that the user is looking for or expecting when they type in a query. Failure to meet the searcher’s expectations is a guaranteed ticket out of Google’s first results page.
There are four types of content that you can provide on your website:
- Navigational, where the intent of the user is to find a certain page.
- Informational, where the intent of the user is mainly educational.
- Transactional, where the intent of the user is to buy a product/service.
- Commercial, where the intent of the user is pre-purchase research.
So, how do you determine the search intent behind a given keyword? The first approach is to type in the keyword on Google and analyze the results. The search intent will boil down to the type of results that pop up. If the results are mostly informational blog posts, then the search intent is educational. If they’re mostly product pages, the search intent is transactional, and so forth.
Another convenient approach is to use an intent metric, which is a functionality that’s available in most keyword research tools. You simply punch in a keyword and the tool automatically analyzes the intent. After determining the search intent behind your target keyword, you can start creating quality content that aligns with that specific search intent.
Frequently Asked Questions
What Is a Good Keyword Difficulty Score to Target?
Ideally, you should aim for keywords with a difficulty score of 30 to 70. Difficulty scores within that range offer you a realistic chance to compete, and they tend to have a pretty good search volume. That being said, remember that different SEO platforms have various keyword difficulty scales. So, there might be some minor discrepancies. The bottom line is that you should aim for keywords that aren’t difficult to compete for yet have notable search volume. We’re talking about the ones that lie somewhere in the middle of the keyword difficulty scale of whatever SEO tool you’re using.
How Do Long-Tail Keywords Affect Keyword Difficulty?
Long-tail keywords, which are typically composed of three to five words, are considerably easier to compete for compared to shorter, more common keywords. Generally, the longer and more specific your target keyword, the easier you’ll be able to rank for it, assuming it has a worthwhile search volume.
Do All SEO Tools Measure Keyword Difficulty the Same?
No, different SEO tools have different frames of reference when measuring keyword difficulty. Ahrefs, for example, places a great deal of emphasis on backlinks, whereas Semrush considers both backlinks and domain authority. Having said that, it’s crucial to understand how your SEO tool of choice goes about calculating keyword difficulty so you can align your ranking goals accordingly.
Can Keyword Difficulty Be Misleading?
Yes, keyword difficulty scores can be a bit misleading. They can overestimate how easy or how hard it is to rank for a given keyword. This is why it’s important to have a deep understanding of the concept of keyword difficulty as a whole rather than relying on keyword difficulty scores alone.
Target the Right Keywords
Not all high-traffic keywords are created equal. In reality, you need to be choosy about the keywords you target in your SEO strategy. Not all keywords are worth going after — in some cases, it simply isn’t realistic to try and rank for a certain term.
But now that you know what keyword difficulty is and understand how it’s calculated, you can figure out which keywords are actually within reach. Once you have a list of feasible targets, you can start planning your strategy … and increasing your chances of driving traffic (and conversions) to your site.
Raymond Li is known for his deep understanding of SEO and ability to develop successful client campaigns. His technical expertise and creativity have helped businesses of all sizes to improve their organic search presence. Ray enjoys playing ultimate frisbee and exploring the local cuisine when not dominating the SERPs for a wide array of juicy keywords.