Keyword Difficulty: What It Is and How to Check It

SUSO 02 August 2022

Keyword difficulty is a metric that every SEO should consider during keyword research. Find out how it can help you understand how hard it would be for a website to rank for a specific keyword.

Author: Pawel Grabczewski, SEO Specialist

Pawel Grabczewski

If you think about it, identifying keywords that can bring traffic to your website isn’t the most challenging task when talking about SEO. The problem is that search volume can be deceiving. In theory, the more people search for a given keyword, the more traffic they are supposed to generate. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case. 

This is because some keywords are more difficult to rank for than others. That’s why, during the keyword research process, you need to consider a handy SEO metric that is keyword difficulty.

What Is Keyword Difficulty?

Keyword difficulty is defined as an SEO metric that evaluates how challenging it is to rank on the first page of Google’s search results for a specific search term. The higher the Keyword Difficulty, the more effort and time it will take to see any results when targeting it. This will have a massive impact when planning your content strategy. 

For instance, imagine your website provides advice on real estate investing. For your next blog post, you want to write an article about different types of real estate investments. Naturally, your target keyword here should be “real estate investment,” based on the search volume and relevance. 

Even with the best content writers in the industry, it’s unlikely to rank on the first page, let alone top SERP positions. Why? Because your target keyword is tough to rank for (in this case, even extremely tough). 

Let’s see what Ahrefs’ Keyword Explorer has to say about it:

Ahrefs keyword explorer

As you can see, Ahrefs estimates this keyword as “Hard.” It has a Keyword Difficulty of 37 with the tool estimating that it would require around 49 backlinks to rank in the top 10 positions for this search term. Does it mean you shouldn’t use it and focus on lower-difficulty keywords instead? Not really. 

While difficult keywords are, well, difficult to rank for, they provide SEO professionals with an insight into the competitive landscape of their niche, helping them adjust their strategy and find the right balance between keyword difficulty and search volume. 

But how to determine whether your keyword is challenging to rank for? For this, you need to look closely at the factors influencing its difficulty score. 

What Determines Keyword Difficulty?

Several key factors come into play when talking about keyword difficulty. And while various SEO keyword research tools use different characteristics to determine their difficulty score, several universal factors typically impact keyword difficulty. These include:

  • Domain Authority
  • Content quality
  • Search intent
  • Backlink quality
  • Competitors

Let’s cover them in more detail.

Domain Authority

When you look at most search queries, top search results are practically always occupied by high-authority domains. Competing with them won’t be easy, especially for a newly established domain. 

As for the impact the domain authority has on keyword difficulty, it can affect it in two ways. First, if your domain has low authority, Google is less likely to consider your content better than the competition. And secondly, if you’re up against established and authoritative websites, fighting against them for top spots will become even more challenging.

Ahrefs has a metric to measure this called Domain Rating which depicts the strength of a website’s backlink profile in comparison to others on a 100-point scale.

Looking at this metric gives an insight into how your website compares to your competitors for your target keywords.

Ahrefs Domain Rating

In the example above, all but one of the sites have a DR above 80, which implies that a website with lower DR scores will struggle to compete. However, we can see that one site with a DR of 26 has snuck into the top 10, suggesting that high DR doesn’t always guarantee rankings. 

Why? Because this is a third-party metric which should be used to serve as a guide for perceived authority.

Content Quality

Whether you like it or not, content is king. Without creating top-quality content, you stand no chance of competing with top-ranking websites. That is especially true when you try to rank for more difficult keywords, which require much work put into effective positioning. 

Before you create your content, be sure you conduct thorough keyword research and competitive analysis. Study the content your top competitors provide to determine what kind of content Google is favouring and what keyword ideas you can take advantage of. 

Essentially, high-quality content should:

  • Provide relevant and accurate answers to search queries;
  • Be well-researched and well-written;
  • Contain unique information;
  • Be optimised for target keywords.

Search Intent

Your content might be well-researched and written, but does it answer your target audience’s queries? Well-optimised and quality content won’t guarantee anything if it doesn’t cover the topic your audience is interested in. 

To attract the desired traffic to your site, you need to consider search intent

Simply put, search intent refers to the information users search for a specific term. In SEO, we distinguish between the four key search intent types:

  • Informational – a person wants to educate themselves on a specific topic;
  • Navigational – the user tries to find a specific website/page;
  • Commercial – the user is looking for more information about a product/service before making a purchase;
  • Transactional – the user wants to buy a product or service.

You can find your audience’s search intent for a given keyword either by typing it into Google and looking at the top results or by using a dedicated SEO tool, such as Semrush or Ahrefs. 

Both ways will help you determine what kind of content your audience is searching for, allowing you to adjust your content strategy accordingly. 

Backlink Quality

If you want to rank for a difficult and highly competitive keyword, you’ll need to support it. The best way to do that is through the acquisition of high-quality backlinks. As a rule of thumb, if you think about challenging top pages, you’ll need to obtain at least as many backlinks as them. 

But it’s not all about the quantity of the backlinks.  You also need to ensure they come from authoritative and relevant sources. This will help you build your domain authority and a strong backlink profile to allow you to compete with top search competitors. 

Okay, but how to estimate how many backlinks you need? The best way to do this is by using Ahrefs. Their keyword explorer tool has a very handy feature that shows you how many backlinks, and from how many referring domains you’ll need to acquire when targeting a specific keyword. 

For example, when targeting “lego star wars,” you’d need to acquire backlinks from approximately 167 domains to rank in the top 10 in Google search for that keyword.

backlinks required overview

Competitors

Sites you’re competing with for a given keyword greatly impact its difficulty. In essence, the more sites trying to rank for a keyword, and the more authoritative they are, the tougher it is to rank for that search term. That said, to understand whether you stand any chance of ranking for the target search term, you need to figure out who your competitors are first. 

When it comes to SEO, you’ll be competing against:

  • Industry competitors – businesses and sites offering the same or similar products and services to your target audience;
  • SEO competitors – sites targeting similar audiences and keywords when creating content;
  • keyword competitors – websites ranking for the same keyword you want to target.

Several tools allow you to identify your competitors. One is Ahrefs Keyword Explorer, where you can check all websites targeting your desired keyword, their SERP position, authority, backlink profile, and more. 

Staying with the previous example, here’s what the keyword competitive analysis would look like for “real estate investment:”

keyword competitive analysis

How to Check Keyword Difficulty Score?

Keyword difficulty is measured on a scale from 0 to 100, where a higher keyword difficulty score means the term is more challenging to rank for. 

Such a scale is used by most reputable SEO keyword research tools, including Ahrefs, Semrush, and Moz, although the exact numbers may vary depending on the tool you use. 

For instance, although one keyword has a difficulty score of 21 according to Ahrefs, Semrush can estimate it at 37. 

Both tools should provide you with the answer you’re looking for, though. The real question would be how to interpret different keyword difficulty scores. 

What Is a Good Keyword Difficulty Score?

That’s an excellent question. And as with any other SEO-related question, the answer is – it depends. As covered, several factors impact keyword difficulty and your chances of ranking for them. 

Tools like Ahrefs or Semrush can provide you with an insight into how challenging it may be to rank for a specific keyword, but you shouldn’t follow their scores blindly. Look at the bigger picture and consider the following:

  • your domain authority – the higher it is, the better your chances of ranking for target keywords;
  • your backlink profile – without proper support from referring domains, you don’t stand a chance against search-leading websites;
  • your content quality – if you have the resources to provide top-quality content, you can try and rank for more difficult keywords.

What Is an Easy Keyword Difficulty Score?

Each Keyword Difficulty measuring tool takes different variables into account, meaning that the scores provided will vary depending on the tool you use. 

In theory, the lower the score, the less challenging it should be to rank for a specific keyword. As for metrics, Semrush considers keywords easy if their difficulty score ranges between 0 and 29. 

On the other hand, Ahrefs estimates keywords as easy if their score doesn’t exceed 10. That’s a significant difference. 

Also, while a keyword for some domains might be considered easy, others might struggle ranking for it. That’s why it’s best to use your own experience and expertise when figuring out keyword difficulty and using SEO tools as guides. 

How Do Long Tail Keywords Affect Keyword Difficulty?

As a rule, shorter and broad keywords generate a much higher search volume than longer and more specific queries (aka long-tail keywords). Therefore, they are typically much more difficult to rank for, especially when operating in a highly competitive niche. Taking advantage of long-tail keywords might be a great tactic here.

In essence, long-tail keywords are longer terms that come with a decreased search volume and a lower difficulty level. Because of that, they usually generate improved conversion rates compared to broad short-tail phrases. 

Remember our LEGO example? The keyword difficulty score for the “lego star wars” search was 66, meaning that Ahrefs treats it as a hard term to rank for.

keyword difficulty score

It does come with an impressive search volume, though. 

Now, let’s compare it to the long-tail keyword – “cheap lego star wars sets.”

keyword difficulty score coparison

Keyword difficulty automatically drops to only 16. So does the search volume, which now is 1.2K instead of 169K. 

Targeting long-tail keywords to start with, is an extremely effective way to build visibility for your website. Once you’ve started to rank for a range of these keywords, you can work your way up to targeting the more “difficult” search terms.

Final Thoughts: Why Is Keyword Difficulty Important?

Keyword research plays a pivotal role in creating an effective SEO content strategy. However, while identifying search terms to bring traffic to your website doesn’t pose that much of a challenge, determining whether you will be able to rank for them is a different kettle of fish. 

That’s because, besides the search volume for a given keyword, you should also look at its difficulty score. Using tools like Semrush or Ahrefs, you can gain insight into where your chances for success lie and how much effort it might take to boost your rankings. 

However, keyword difficulty scores provided by online tools should only be treated as reference points. To determine how challenging it will be to rank for a given keyword, you will need to consider several factors, such as your content quality, backlink profile, and domain authority. 

Take your time and do your research to find your keyword ranking opportunities. Building your search engine presence and authority is not a sprint. It’s a marathon that involves numerous factors to consider and keyword difficulty is only one of them.

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