Keyword difficulty is a metric that measures the effort it takes for your content to rank on the first page of Google for a given keyword. In other words, if a keyword is difficult, it will take a lot of time and attention on your part to see results.
But what does this mean for keyword research? Should we only focus on low difficulty search terms?
Not necessarily. When choosing what to target, a smart strategy considers both keyword difficulty and search volume. This way, you can create a strategy that balances opportunity with ranking ease.
we’ll explore the ins and outs of keyword difficulty: what it is, how to interpret it, and how to incorporate it into your strategy.
What is keyword difficulty?
Keyword difficulty in SEO (also known as “SEO difficulty” or “keyword competition”) is the process of assessing how difficult it is to rank in Google’s organic search results for a specific term. The difficulty of a keyword depends on several different factors, including domain authority, page authority, and content quality.
Why is keyword difficulty important?
In short: this is an extremely important part of the keyword research process. Along with monthly search volume and other factors, keyword difficulty helps you choose the best keywords for SEO.
The only problem is that each tool measures keyword difficulty differently.
In fact, our recent review of popular keyword tools revealed that their difficulty scores were all over the place…even for the same keyword.
How is keyword difficulty calculated?
When quantifying the competition of a keyword into a metric, there’s only one aspect of the website quality taken into consideration – the backlink profile.
Each website ranking in the 1st SERP is given a certain score based on the quality and quantity of the backlinks.
The authority of your competitors can be measured in various ways. In KWFinder, you can find the Link Profile Strength metric that estimates the quality of the website’s link profile.
The calculation is based on the selected metrics by Moz, Majestic and our know-how, namely:
- Domain Authority
- Page Authority
- Citation Flow
- Trust Flow
What Is a Good Keyword Difficulty Score?
Ultimately, to know what a good keyword difficulty score is, you first must know your site. If you’re running a high-authority domain, you may have the potential to win more difficult keywords more easily. In that case, it might be worth the effort to target high-difficulty search terms.
Conversely, if you’re running a brand-new site, deciding whether to target the most difficult search terms might not be so clear-cut. In some cases, it might be a wiser strategy to avoid the most difficult keywords for now and instead target easier ones and build up your authority over time.
However, if the most difficult keywords are also foundational to your business, you might instead decide it’s worth the extra effort to target them, even if it takes longer to rank.
Let’s say you work at a car dealership that offers auto repairs. You should have a landing page for your service centre even if auto repair-related keywords in your area have high difficulty.
So, then, how do you go about choosing keywords based on their difficulty?
Keyword Difficulty as a General Term
When estimating how difficult it will be for you to rank for a certain keyword, you need to consider a few factors, both internal and external.
The most important factors are:
- Your competitors
SEO is about outperforming your competition.
Therefore, looking at competing websites is one of the best ways to estimate a keyword’s ranking difficulty. You need to focus on the quality of your:
On-page optimization (see our on-page SEO guide)
Backlinks are still a very important ranking factor, so they provide a good estimate of how difficult it is to rank for a keyword.
It is also the only factor that can be measured and put into a metric. This is why estimating keyword difficulty often boils down to determining how authoritative (in terms of link profile) your competitors are.
The more authority ranking websites have for a keyword, the harder it is for you to outrank them.
- Authority of your website
In addition to competitors, your ability to rank for a keyword is also determined by the authority of your own website.
This is especially important to keep in mind if you have a new website. Even if the competition for a keyword is relatively low and you write great content, you probably won’t rank with your new site without backlinks.
- Quality of your content
There is a flip side to this: your website authority won’t help you if the quality of your content can’t compete with the pages ranking in the first SERP.
You should ask yourself these questions:
How difficult will it be for me to write content that is equal to or better than the competition’s pages?
Can I provide the same level of expertise as my competitors?
Are there any benefits you can offer readers over the competition? (Quality, depth of knowledge, unique data, images, etc.)
These are all subjective factors that contribute to the overall keyword difficulty level in your specific case.
- Research intent
Finally, you need to consider the search intent behind the search query.
In other words, what type of content do people who have used a particular keyword expect?
So how do you know the search intent behind the keyword?
The easiest way is to “reverse engineer” by looking at search results and seeing what kind of pages are ranking for the keyword.
If your keyword is “best air humidifier” and all the pages in the first SERP are reviews, chances are you won’t rank for that keyword with your eCommerce landing page. Even if your website had more authority and your content would be better optimized.
Don’t make the mistake of basing your keyword research on search volume alone.
When you do this, you’ll struggle to set realistic expectations or estimate the time and resources needed to succeed.
Take the time to understand how feasible it is to rank for the keywords you want, find quick win opportunities (lower difficulty, higher-value keywords), and get buy-in for your strategy based on solid but realistic projections.
Use the Keyword Difficulty Score as a guide, and combine this with insights on your own domain’s authority and ability to rank to put in place a roadmap of actions that sets you up for growth.
There are plenty of keyword research tools to try out to get started!