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Keyword Difficulty Explained: What It Is and How It Impacts SEO

Understanding keyword difficulty and how it pertains to SEO, can be tricky. Discover everything about keyword difficulty and how to apply it to your SEO strategy.

Mara Calvello Mara Calvello on February 8, 2021 • 25 minute read

When it comes to writing content that ranks, there’s a lot to consider.

You probably take the time to plan out its specific URL, create eye-catching images, and find statistics to back up all of your points. But before you do all of that, have you stopped to consider the keyword you’re targeted? Do you know it’s keyword difficulty score?

If you don’t make the effort to check the difficulty of the search term you’re trying to rank for, your SEO strategy is missing a major step. That’s there Databox comes into play, as we’re here to break everything you need to know about keyword difficulty down, including helpful tips on implementing it into your SEO strategy. 

Interested in something specific about keyword difficulty? Jump ahead to:

What is Keyword Difficulty? 

The thing that makes keyword difficulty (also referred to as keyword competition or SEO difficulty), somewhat tricky to understand is that it can be both defined as a metric and as a general term in relation to SEO.

In terms of a metric, David Toby from Pathfinder Alliance defines it simply by stating “Keyword difficulty is an essential SEO metric. It’s important to understand what it takes to rank a keyword and this is known as keyword difficulty. The higher the metric score the more difficult it is to rank.”

In more general terms, keyword difficulty tells you how difficult it is to rank for a certain term. Once you have an understanding of how high or low this number is, you can assess whether or not you want to optimize an organic piece of content for this term or bid on a keyword during a PPC campaign. 

Essentially, the higher the volume of a keyword, the harder it’s going to be for your content to rank on page one for this term and beat out your competition.

Why Should I Care about Keyword Difficulty?

So, why is keyword difficulty, or “KD”, such a hot-button topic of conversation? In short, if you want your content to rank in the search engines, it’s something you should at least factor into your strategy. 

A lot of how much you care about KD is going to depend on if your website is fresh and new or well established. Ruth Edwards at Ahrefs explains this perfectly, “The importance of keyword difficulty depends very much on how well established and successful your website already is. If you have a high authority site that already ranks well for hundreds of competitive keywords, your best strategy is to target high volume keywords, regardless of difficulty.

On the other hand, if you’re a small or medium-sized business, it’s essential to start by targeting keywords with a relatively low difficulty (say 70 or less) regardless of search volume.”

Also chiming in on how much you should care is Kateryna Reshetilo at Greenice, who explains, “Keyword difficulty is definitely an important metric to consider. On the one hand, it tells you how valuable your key phrase is, on the other, whether you have a chance of beating your competition.

For instance, if the keyword difficulty is high (for us it is anything higher than 20) you know that competitors are pursuing it probably because it brings valuable visitors. Also, depending on how high it is, you’ll know if you’ll have enough resources to push your page to the top or not. In our case, we are a very small team with a limited budget, so we won’t be able to handle anything higher than 40 yet.”

Finally, you should care about keyword difficulty because ranking for difficult keywords is just that… difficult. Peter Thaleikis from RankLetter explains, “Achieving a decent position for a difficult keyword requires a lot of effort to produce amazing content and links. Even then, you aren’t sure to rank persistently. You can assume that there are at least a few very talented marketers doing the same. It’s a constant race. Simply said, sustainable traffic growth often doesn’t go with high difficulty keywords.

Low volume and difficulty, on the other hand, provide much higher chances to rank for a longer period. Sometimes one decent article can rank for years and drive a substantial amount of traffic with fairly low effort. For a balanced content strategy, you should aim at a solid base of low difficulty keywords and add a few ambitious keywords in.”

How to Check Keyword Difficulty

So, how do you know just how difficult a keyword is to rank for? 

Steve West from EntrepreneurNut breaks it down by explaining, “When planning my content strategy I use the keyword difficulty metric in Ahrefs to firstly sort possible keywords to target. 

When I am building a new site I often sort by a keyword difficulty (KD) of less than 10. For more established sites I look for keywords with a KD of less than 35. From here, I then take a look at the keywords with the highest search volume and analyze the top 10 rankers for each keyword. When analyzing the websites in the top 10 positions, I am particularly interested to see if there are any weak sites with a DR of less than 30 showing up. 

If there are two or more then I consider this a good sign. I then note how much traffic each of these sites is receiving for that keyword as shown by Ahrefs. Lastly, I also look to see how many backlinks each of the sites have linking to the specific page that is ranking in the top 10 for the keyword. Overall, this gives me a good idea of how easily or not I will be able to rank for a specific keyword and how many backlinks I may also need to build in order to rank in the top 10.”

Henry O’Loughlin from Buildremote also has some advice on checking for keyword difficulty, stating, “When analyzing a search term, keyword difficulty is the most important metric for me. We try to match the keyword difficulty (0-100) with our website’s domain authority (also 0-100). If our website is a 45/100, we try to target keywords with difficulty around the same range. It positions us to have a chance to rank.”

Which Factors Determine Keyword Difficulty? 

There are many factors that determine what makes a keyword difficult and what makes it on the easier side. Typically, these factors include:

  1. Strength of competitors
  2. Your website’s domain authority (DA)
  3. The quality of the content
  4. Search intent

Let’s take a look at each.

1. Strength of competitors

When it comes to a keyword being difficult to rank for, or easy to rank for, a lot of it can depend on the strength of the competitors who have already started ranking for that term. 

Jeff Romero from Octiv Digital further explains by saying, “Keyword difficulty and quick competitor analysis allows us to understand just how difficult it will be to rank a piece of content.

For example, if a local insurance client is trying to compete with the same keywords as a major carrier with a national presence, we expect the keyword difficulty to be high and difficult to rank for. Therefore, we identify keywords with lower competition and difficulty scores to develop content that will start ranking faster. We end up with a lot of torso terms and long-tail terms that are more often than not coming from searchers who are more likely to convert.”

Adding to this is Rob Chartier from Ironpaper, who shares, “If you are new to the SEO game or have major competition, you may want to consider starting with lower-volume and/or less competitive search terms and win these ‘easier’ battles before tackling the higher volume, more competitive keywords. Being the big fish in a small pond isn’t a bad thing…just keep making progress!”

2. Your website’s domain authority (DA)

To explain domain authority, David Chapman from 919 Marketing starts things off by explaining, “Keyword difficulty gives us an idea of how big of a pond we can fish in when creating content. If we’re creating content for a domain with a low domain authority, we know that it has a lower likelihood of ranking well if the keyword is difficult.

In cases like this, you look for the low hanging fruit first (low difficulty keywords) and start building from there. For domains with a higher domain authority, we feel more confident that we can go after more difficult keywords with higher volumes.”

Explaining further is Travis McGinnis from Vye. McGinnis shares, “Keyword difficulty (KD) is just one of many factors for SEO rankings. Generally speaking, KD has a correlation with domain authority, meaning the more authoritative a domain, the easier it’ll be to rank for high difficulty keywords. But that’s not to say domains with low authority cannot rank for high KD terms, especially if those sites are super niche to the terms they want to target.”

Adding to this is Colin Mosier at JSL Marketing & Web Design. Mosier states, “When we are looking at a new SEO campaign and are in the process of choosing keywords, we will often take into account the keyword difficulty, especially if it is a brand new website with low domain authority. If we are starting from scratch with a new site, we will generally try to target keywords with a bit lower keyword difficulty. 

We do this so that we can start ranking for these keywords a bit faster and start to increase the domain authority from the start. Otherwise, if you reach too high in keyword difficulty with a brand new site, it can take months to rank for anything and this will not help the new site’s authority. However, if the site is not brand new and already has a bit of authority, we can be a bit more ambitious with our keyword selection and start a bit higher.”

Finally, Chris Wilks from BrandExtract adds, “Keyword difficulty is going to depend a lot on the authority of your site. If you’re already an established authority in your vertical, then it won’t matter much at all because you’re a trusted resource. However, if you’re just starting out or have limited authority in your industry, you might want to start with something a little more niche or a longer-tail keyword.”

3. Quality of the content

Another factor that comes into play with keyword difficulty is the quality of the content. Is it well written with solid interlinking? Does it include high-quality images and relevant data points? 

David Toby from Pathfinder Alliance is back to explain this further, by adding, “Each website is ranked by giving it a score on the quality and quantity of backlinks. The quality of your content, depth of knowledge, data, and visuals are all competing against those of your competitors and contribute to the overall level of keyword difficulty. Title tag, URL, headline, and what type of content people are searching for and what particular keyword they may be searching for, all affect the KD.”

Adding to how the quality of the content attributes to the keyword difficulty is Sam Gooch from Kinsta. Gooch explains, “I often use keyword difficulty scores as a guide to spotting opportunities, but the true test lies in manually checking the top pages for content relevancy. If all of the page one results returned for the target keyword is filled with content that isn’t doing a great job of answering the query, it shouldn’t take much work to get a better page ranking. 

If, however, you’re seeing relevant content from well-known sites, like CNN and Forbes, you might struggle to muscle your way to the top, so in this case, it may be better to consider other keyword variations or long-tail keywords with less competition.”

In agreement is Jesse Heredia from Ravecode Solutions. Heredia shares, “When talking about keyword difficulty, I proceed to review the competition and consider several factors. Their domain authority rating, amount of traffic, quality of the content, number of backlinks to name a few. In order to compete with those who are already on the first page, it is imperative to perform a complete analysis to determine if we can overtake them in an acceptable time frame and then decide if we should move forward.”

Related: Content Strategy vs. SEO Strategy: How to Decide Which Comes First

4. Search intent

When it comes to SEO, search intent is basically the “why” behind the search. What are they trying to accomplish, learn, or have answered with their search query? This can directly factor into the keyword difficulty of a term.

Katrina Dalao from Referral Rock weighs in to share, “Keyword difficulty is really important when doing initial research. It tells us how much effort and time will be needed to potentially rank for the keyword or topic.

That said, there are a lot of other factors to why one page ranks over other – things like domain authority backlinks, search intent, and more tie into how difficult it will actually be for you to rank for a keyword. If a keyword is very relevant for your business, it’s still worth going after, even if it has a high difficulty. Just make sure to keep creating other great content to help round off a strong content strategy.”

How is Keyword Difficulty Calculated?

There are clearly many factors that weigh into whether something has a high or low KD, but how is actually calculated and determined?

Travis McGinnis from Vye is back with an explanation. McGinnis explains, “A general rule of thumb is to try and stick to keywords no more than 5-10 difficulty points higher than your domain’s authority. It’s also important to note the number and quality of backlinks on the top-ranking pages. If every result on the first page has thousands of backlinks and the keyword difficulty is significantly higher than your domain authority, it’ll be near impossible to break into those results.

Whereas if a few results have a minimal amount of backlinks, it’s still possible to rank, even if the KD is higher than your domain authority. Just be sure that the content you’re creating is superior in every way to the top-ranking pages. Once the post is published, start a link building campaign around it to push it higher in the results.”

What is a Good Keyword Difficulty?

When it comes to a “good” KD and a “bad” KD, it oftentimes it’s going to depend on the website for which you’re writing for. But at the end of the day, it’s up to you, the writer, or the person who’s creating the SEO strategy, to decide what’s good and what’s bad.

Weighing in on the matter is Lorie Anderson from MomInformed. Anderson shares, “By targeting low KD terms when your site is brand new, you can start to drive traffic to your site. It’s actually the best way to earn organic traffic when you don’t have an established audience yet. Even if a term only gets 90 or 100 searches per month, if it has a KD of 0, that’s a lot of potential clicks for you. Later on, when your site is more established, you might not waste your time on a term with 90 SV. But early on, it’s a smart move.”

James McCarthy from Placement Labs also has input on what makes a keyword good. McCarthy states, “We focus our efforts on searching for the most useful keywords for our clients that feature the greatest combination of high search volume and low KD. Medium-tail keywords with volumes over 1,000 and KD’s below 5 are like gold for us. As the majority of our clients are local, small-to-medium sized businesses, we tend to focus on finding keywords with KD between 0-15, while still maintaining sizable search volume.”

Agreeing is Michal Hajtas from AutoPi, who adds, “Keyword difficulty plays quite a significant role in our content creation. We are usually going for keywords with a difficulty of around 30 and lower. The harder the difficulty, the harder it gets to rank for it. We are also trying to focus on long-tail keywords and specific phrases or terms that people can search for.”

John Hewitt from Netbooks Review also knows that when it comes to a good keyword volume, it depends on how new your blog is. Hewitt explains, “For brand new blogs, I will go for the low-hanging fruit and start from keywords with less than 10 difficulty scores. It’s important to choose the niche keywords because you cannot rank for difficult keywords with a brand new website (unless you can invest a significant amount and time in link building and content marketing). Once the website gets some links and starts to rank for the “easy” ones, you can start exploring the keywords between 11 – 30. This way, I am getting some traffic in the first few months, which means I can work on conversions or list building right from the word go.”

Finally, Eric Izazaga Webstacks wraps things up by agreeing with Hewitt, stating, “For starters, focusing on keywords with a keyword difficulty of 40 or lower would be ideal for a startup company, or any company really, that is just starting to push its content agenda. What this means is there will be more opportunities and a greater chance for your company to appear in the first 2-3 pages of search engines after a few months if you publish consistent, valuable content for lower-ranked keywords.”

common-keyword-difficulty

5 Ways to Use Keyword Difficulty in Your SEO Strategy?

So now that you have a better understanding of the ins and outs of keyword difficulty, how do you implement keyword difficulty into your SEO strategy to see success? 

Some basic tips to follow include:

  1. Look for long-tail keywords
  2. Start with low volume keywords
  3. Keep user intent in mind
  4. Build a hub page to support your content
  5. Don’t ignore other SEO factors

1. Look for long-tail keywords

Ruth Edwards from Ahrefs is back to break it down. Edwards explained, “A good SEO strategy is to identify keywords with high search volume, then search for longer keywords that include this keyword within them. For example, if your target keyword is ‘France hotel’, this is too competitive for a new site to target. If you start by targeting ‘boutique hotels France’ or ‘luxury hotels in France’, these both have a low keyword difficulty, but enough search volume to be worthwhile targeting. Start with these and they have the potential to help you rank for your main keyword down the line.”

Agreeing is Jonathan Aufray from Growth Hackers, who adds, “My advice is to find long-tail keywords. Keyword research, volume, and difficulty are key elements to plan our content and SEO strategy.

If the keyword difficulty is really high, it means that big players in your industry are ranking for those keywords.

In other words, it will take you a long time and effort to rank for those keywords and leverage their potential organic traffic.

What I suggest is to find long-tail keywords related to them. Long-tail keywords might not have the same amount of searches but the keyword difficulty will be much lower and you have a bigger chance to get substantial results with those keywords.”

Doing so can be extremely beneficial, especially if you’re writing content that has a very specific or niche audience. John Pannell from Access Box Storage explains further, “Our niche is really specific, we are a local storage company. For us, finding the right keywords for our content strategy was quite a challenge. When planning our blog content we tend to find long-tail keywords that fit our ideal customers and build around that. For that, we only choose keywords with low difficulty.

Manick Bhan from LinkGraph uses this tactic in their SEO strategy, too. Bhan breaks it all down by sharing, “When it comes to keyword research, the best keywords to target are those that your website has a strong chance of ranking for and converting from. Until you build your site authority, it is unlikely that your web pages will rank for the most competitive keywords. Instead, optimizing for longer-tail variants with lower keyword difficulty scores can provide better ranking opportunities for newer brands or those still working on building their backlink profiles.”

high-keyword-difficulty-plan

2. Start with low volume keywords

You can also make it a point to focus your SEO strategy on lower volume keywords first, especially if you’re just starting out creating a content plan for your website.

Jessica Gatliff from Money Australia explains, “Adding a lot of content is our main focus in the new year and keyword research is a critical success factor. Especially if your website is still new, you cannot go after the big keywords. You have to start small. With brand new websites I like using Ahrefs and I am usually looking for keywords that have a keyword difficulty of no more than 9. These keywords are usually small enough so that you can target them without building any backlinks.”

In agreement is Ally Anderson of Akari Digital. Anderson explains this further by adding, “When I’m working with businesses who are just starting on their SEO strategy, I aim for keywords with difficulties lower than 50%. For businesses that have some SEO authority, they can see success when targeting more difficult keywords, as long as the content they’re creating is of higher quality than the content already ranking in the SERP.”

Emma-Jane Shaw from Uku Inbound also recommends this tactic. Shaw breaks it down by saying, “Keyword difficulty often forms a large part of how we develop a content strategy and how we subsequently execute our keyword research.

Every website is different, and requires a tailored approach to keyword research, we all know this, but when it comes to organic keyword targeting, you can’t blanket your approach and target all the high volume, high difficulty keywords.

The digital landscape is densely populated and requires a more nuanced approach to keyword targeting to try and break into the competitive landscape effectively. By targeting less difficult, longer tail keywords you’re able to put yourself in a position of attracting more qualified website visits.”

Finally, Nate Rodriguez from LIFTOFF Digital backs up this tip even further by sharing, “Keyword difficulty comes into play when you’re prioritizing which keywords to go after in your content strategy.

In other words, if you have a low DA site, you’ll want to prioritize keywords that aren’t that difficult, otherwise, you are setting yourself up for failure.

For example, if I just launched my site and my DA is 10, (I use Ahrefs for keyword research) I would try and find keywords with keyword difficulty of 10 or less.

Prioritize these keywords because you actually stand a chance at ranking for those keywords. As you build up your domain authority, you can shift to ranking more difficult keywords.”

3. Keep user intent in mind

How well do you know your audience? Do you know exactly what they’re looking to find when they’re searching? When you do, you can make sure you’re factoring in user intent when finding the right keywords to rank for.

Crystal Diaz from Lights On Creative implements this tactic into their SEO strategy. Diaz explains, “The keywords I tend to use when planning content are low difficulty by high relevance. So, if the keyword was something broad like ‘cat toys’ that might be too difficult to rank with not the right people. You want to focus on user intent and the story behind the keyword. Instead, try ‘cat toys for small families’.

I would find something in the range of 100-800~ volume to reach a month with the difficulty around 10-40. because those are the right customers. Try not to focus on the big broad terms and focus more on user intent.”

4. Build a hub page around difficult keywords

Have a keyword in mind with a high score that you’d love to rank for? Consider building a hub page to support such content around a high volume search term.

Vlad Rascanu from Build Media Group recommends this tip, sharing, “We use keyword difficulty to guide ourselves as we quickly skim through all the options and to organize the types of content we need to create for each keyword. For more difficult keywords we will typically create hub pages that are very detailed with lots of outbound links to other authoritative sources and internal links to many other sub-topic pages to support our main hub page.”

Related: Not sure what building topic clusters and hub pages is all about? We explained it in a super simple manner – it’s the same as taking a trip to a casino.

5. Don’t ignore the other factors

There’s no denying that keyword difficulty needs to be considered when creating an SEO strategy, but when you draft up a plan, don’t put everything else you know about SEO on the back burner. 

Janelle Owens from MCAT Test Prep Insights explains, “We look at keyword difficulty as just one factor on a sliding scale with other metrics when setting our content pipeline. You have to look at the whole picture to assess whether or not targeting a keyword with higher difficulty is worth it.

If the search volume is high, the potential conversion rate is high, and the ROI would be worth it, then I wouldn’t be afraid to tackle content that has an accompanying keyword difficulty that is high.

On the other hand, if search is low and there is not much opportunity for profit, I would never generally consider going after a keyword with extreme difficulty.

Keyword difficulty absolutely factors into the equation when setting a content strategy, but that’s just it — it’s an equation. And keyword difficulty is just one piece of that formula.”

Best Keyword Difficulty Checker Tools

Last but certainly not least, when you’re finally ready to check the keyword difficulty of the terms you want to rank for… which tools should you use? There are a few standout tools when it comes to tracking keywords difficulty. These tools include:

SEMrush

A favorite amongst those tracking the KD of their targeted search terms is SEMrush.

Jesse Spencer of Grooper recommends using it to analyze all types of keywords. Spencer explains, “We analyze both long and short tail keywords and attempt to stay in the 50 – 60% range. We find that these provide a good balance between time to rank and number of good quality prospects. For keyword difficulty outside of our target, we find relevant keywords to rank for and then build our way towards more difficult ranking. We use SEMrush for our analysis.”

Another fan of SEMrush is Bruce Hogan from SoftwarePundit, who further explains, “Keyword difficulty is an important factor when deciding specific keywords to target with organic and paid search campaigns. After we’ve decided on a topic that we’re likely to pursue, we use SEMrush to measure the keyword difficulty of potential target keywords. This helps us select the specific keyword that has the best balance of difficulty and volume.”

*Editor’s note: Keep track of all of your keywords with crystal clear clarity when you utilize the SEMrush keywords and audits dashboard template. There, you’ll be able to see a comprehensive overview of your SEO visibility and while also being able to diagnose SERPS errors quickly.

sem-rush-keywords-dashboard

Related: The 25 Most Powerful SEMrush Features for Improving Your Search Rankings

Ahrefs

Another exceptional tool when it comes to keeping track of keyword difficulty is Ahrefs.

One fan of this SEO tool is Janice Wald from Mostly Blogging. Wald explains how they use Ahrefs by adding, “My content strategy is 100% planned around keyword difficulty. When I get an idea for a blog post, I immediately use keyword difficulty tools to check for ranking potential. I use Ahrefs, which suggests alternate and related keywords. All my content planning begins with keyword difficulty research.”

Another user of Ahrefs is Michael Pozdnev at I Wanna Be a Blogger. Pozdner explains how they use Ahrefs by sharing, “Keyword difficulty is only a rough indicator, but it often helps in the initial evaluation of blog post topics and choosing your primary keyword, especially for new websites or blogs.

For established websites, I determine the KD range by keywords for which I rank high. And then I use this average KD. It would be best if you didn’t rely on the difficulty from one tool, and I usually check  Ahrefs to help me understand how many links you need immediately. It is important not to forget to check the SERP itself. After all, SEO is not only KD.”

*Editor’s note: Never miss any important SEO ranking factor with this free Ahrefs dashboard where you can track and visualize important search ranking factors like domain rating, backlinks, referring pages, and more.

ahrefs-website-audit-template

Related: Here’s How to Use Ahrefs for SEO (According to 97 Marketers)

What will you rank for?

Ready to take everything you’ve learned and apply it to your content? When it’s time to roll up your sleeves and get started, make sure you take the time and factor in the many elements that go into a high and a low keyword difficulty score.

Remember to be patient, and that SEO is a marathon, not a sprint. The right keyword for you, your content, and your customers is out there — you just have to find it.

About the author
Mara Calvello
Mara Calvello Mara is a freelance writer at Databox and a Content Marketing Manager at G2. In her spare time, she's either at the gym, reading a book from her overcrowded bookshelf, enjoying the great outdoors with her rescue dog Zeke, or right in the middle of a Netflix binge. Obsessions include the Chicago Cubs, Harry Potter, and all of the Italian food imaginable.

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