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What Is Keyword Difficulty? (& How to Rank Anyway)

Julia McCoy
Tuesday, 18th Jun 2024
What Is Keyword Difficulty

You often see this “KD” metric in keyword lists and you’re probably wondering, what is keyword difficulty exactly?

Keyword difficulty refers to how hard it is to rank for a particular keyword in search engine results pages (SERPs). It’s a metric that helps SEO professionals and website owners understand the level of effort required to outrank competitors for a specific keyword.

Every SEO tool measures keyword difficulty differently, though most apps use a 0 to 100 scale where the higher the number, the harder it is to rank for that keyword.

Let’s break down some of the factors that influence keyword difficulty, such as content quality and backlink strength, to rank on the SERP.

Table Of Contents:

What Factors Into Keyword Difficulty?

SEO tools measure and rate keyword difficulty using various factors.

To fully understand what is keyword difficulty, we have to think like a search engine.

We know for a fact that the goal of Google, Bing, and other search engines is to provide searchers with the most useful, relevant, and credible information.

In early 2023, there was a leak of the Yandex code that revealed over 1,900 ranking factors in the Russian search engine.

While Google isn’t making public its algorithms, SEO professionals have identified best practices for improving SERP ranking through observation, research, and even subtle admissions from Google.

So what are the factors that influence keyword difficulty scores?

1. Content Relevance and Quality

Content relevance is a critical factor in determining keyword difficulty and plays a pivotal role in how well a page ranks in search engine results. It refers to how closely the content on a webpage matches the search query and the overall topic or theme of the keyword.

Search engines prioritize content that is highly relevant to the search intent and contextually aligned with the keyword’s meaning.

Without good, helpful content there’s little to no chance of competing in the rankings these days. I’m talking content that answers searcher questions with the proper use of relevant keywords, high-volume search phrases, credible sources, and supportive data to drive that higher user experience and user retention.

2. Backlinks (Referring Domains)

Google also wants to know if your content is worth reading and sharing, which is why it factors in how many websites link back to your pages. Ahrefs refers to the websites pointing back to your content as “referring domains”, something they’ve determined through research and incorporated into their Keyword Difficulty calculation.

Backlinks remain a crucial ranking factor in SEO. A strong backlink profile consists of links from reputable and relevant websites. These links signal to search engines that your content is trustworthy and authoritative. Pages with a robust backlink profile are generally more competitive in search results.

3. Search Intent

Understanding and matching search intent is crucial for ranking well in search results. Search engines aim to provide users with the most relevant results based on their search query’s intent (e.g., informational, transactional, navigational).

Keywords that align closely with user intent often have clearer competition, as search engines prioritize pages that best satisfy what users are looking for.

Tailoring content to meet search intent involves analyzing the types of content currently ranking for a keyword and crafting your own content to better address user needs.

4. Number of Competitors

The sheer volume of websites competing for a specific keyword significantly impacts its difficulty.

Keywords with numerous competitors are generally harder to rank for because you’re vying against more sites for visibility in search results.

Competition can vary by industry, with some niches being highly saturated (e.g., technology, finance) and others less so (e.g., niche hobbies, local services).

5. Authority of Competing Pages

This factor assesses how established and influential the websites already ranking for a keyword are.

Search engines prioritize pages from authoritative domains (those with strong backlink profiles, high-quality content, and a history of reliable information).

These sites often have a higher domain authority (DA) or page authority (PA), making it challenging for newer or less authoritative sites to outrank them.

Factors contributing to authority include the age of the domain, the number of quality backlinks pointing to it, and its overall reputation in the online community.

For example, trying to rank against well-known sites like Wikipedia or The New York Times can be extremely difficult due to their high authority.

New businesses with less authority have to be more creative because a new website will face hurdles during Google’s “sandbox” period (we now know it exists). There are several things that Google is known to evaluate before indexing newer domains.

In other words, they are placed “on probation”, often unable to crack those first few pages with a competitive keyword. Although a robust backlink profile might counter some of these hurdles, Google tends to want “trusted” information at the top.

6. On-Page Optimization

Content should not only use keywords but also must be well formatted. Search engines will prioritize those pages that incorporate keywords naturally in URLs, page titles, and headings. All three of these elements are also crucial because a searcher looking at results needs to easily determine how relevant a result is.

On-page SEO also involves ensuring a page loads quickly, is mobile-friendly, and offers a good user experience (UX). Pages that are well-optimized for SEO tend to perform better in search engine rankings.

By considering these factors collectively, SEO professionals can assess the difficulty of ranking for specific keywords and develop effective strategies to improve their website’s visibility in search engine results pages.

How Keyword Tools Determine the Keyword Difficulty Score

Keyword research tools like Content at Scale, Ahrefs, Moz, and Semrush use a combination of the above factors to calculate a keyword difficulty score.

Here’s a general overview of how they typically determine this score:

Data Collection: These tools collect vast amounts of data from search engines, including search volume, the backlinks pointing to ranking pages, domain authority metrics, and more.

Analysis of Ranking Pages: They analyze the top 10-20 pages that currently rank for the keyword. This analysis includes examining each page’s authority, backlink profile, content quality, and other relevant metrics.

Weighting Factors: Different factors are weighted differently depending on the tool’s algorithm. For example, backlinks might be given more weight in one tool, while content quality might be prioritized in another.

Algorithm Calculation: The tool’s proprietary algorithm processes the data and applies the weighted factors to calculate a keyword difficulty score. This score is usually represented on a scale from 0 to 100, with higher scores indicating greater difficulty.

Benchmarking: Some tools compare the analyzed data against a broader database of keywords and ranking pages to benchmark the difficulty score, ensuring consistency and reliability in their scoring system.

Regular Updates: Keyword difficulty scores are periodically updated as the SEO landscape changes, reflecting new data and trends in search rankings.

In summary, keyword research tools determine the keyword difficulty score by analyzing the competition level, authority metrics, backlink profiles, content quality, user engagement, search intent alignment, and technical SEO aspects of the top-ranking pages. They utilize complex algorithms and vast datasets to provide an accurate assessment of how challenging it is to rank for a specific keyword.

Why Does Keyword Difficulty Matter?

If you’ve decided to target keywords as part of your SEO plan (you’re in the right place), then keyword difficulty will matter a lot to you because it lets you evaluate how competitive certain terms are long before you put in a lot of work.

You have to keep in mind how much labor and money go into planning your content. If you want to create an ultimate guide, a recipe, a video, an infographic, or even an ebook, those can require extensive work.

Making Practical Decisions

Keyword difficulty allows content teams to get a good sense of how hard it is to crack those first 10 spots, informing strategic choices before allocating resources.

I personally don’t recommend avoiding high-difficulty keywords completely.

For those hard-to-get keywords, adjust your expectations. If you can’t compete for a coveted top spot immediately, you might settle for reaching a second page or “mid-tier” rank and work your way up to Page One.

Prioritizing Projects

No matter the project size, your keyword difficulty tool lets you figure out where your effort is best used.

It might be tempting to simply select those search terms with sky-high volumes, although a keyword with high search volume is more likely to also be much more competitive because more sites and content will be trying to rank for it.

On the other hand, low-hanging fruit keywords tend to have more long-tail terms or queries.

Look at it as finding a “balance of extremes”.

Dig Deeper to Identify Patterns

A term you expected to be low competition but isn’t (or vice-versa) might seem like good fortune, though you must do a deeper analysis because it might indicate underlying causes.

Perhaps a term related to an emerging technology suddenly took a dive in competitiveness — it could be a trend that is now on a downswing with few users interested, not an opening for you.

In short, a good keyword tool (and understanding how to interpret keyword metrics like difficulty scores) keeps content marketers grounded when tempted to chase what looks like easy gains.

The Biggest Mistake SEOs Make: Relying Too Much on Tools

So, let’s get back to keyword difficulty as a concrete metric for SEO.

Use Filters Wisely

For larger projects such as competitor research, keyword mapping, or even auditing, a tool makes it easy to sort through thousands or millions of keywords because the filtering helps whittle things down fast.

The difficulty metric or keyword competition score allows you to narrow those big lists using a single metric.

Just like any of the main ranking factors for keywords, we must always also remember it’s just one data point. I recommend creating a few different datasets with varying levels to identify possible trends.

Keyword Difficulty Matters – But Don’t Let It Dictate Your Content

You might discover there are some important keywords or keyword clusters you’ve neglected. Don’t just look at the metrics when planning.

In addition to keyword difficulty, create content based on topics that you’re already an authority in or areas you find easy to write about.

Use your own expertise.

Even include personal experiences or interesting stories.

This gives readers an extra edge they may struggle to find in top-ranking competitor content.

FAQs: What is Keyword Difficulty?

How to Reduce Keyword Difficulty?

To reduce keyword difficulty, focus on targeting long-tail keywords, which are more specific and less competitive than broad keywords. Conduct thorough keyword research using tools like Google Keyword Planner to identify less competitive but relevant keywords.

Optimize your content by incorporating these keywords naturally, ensuring high-quality, informative, and engaging material.

Leverage local SEO if applicable, and build quality backlinks to improve your site’s authority. Regularly update and refresh your content to keep it relevant and valuable to your audience.

What is Paid Keyword Difficulty?

Paid keyword difficulty refers to the level of competition and cost associated with bidding on a specific keyword in paid search advertising, such as Google Ads. This metric indicates how challenging and expensive it is to achieve high ad placement for that keyword due to the number of advertisers targeting the same term.

Higher difficulty scores suggest that more businesses are bidding on the keyword, driving up the cost-per-click (CPC) and making it harder to secure top ad positions. Understanding paid keyword difficulty helps advertisers strategically choose keywords that balance relevance, competition, and budget to optimize their ad campaigns’ effectiveness and ROI.

What Does Keyword Difficulty 0 Mean?

Keyword difficulty zero means that there is virtually no competition for that keyword in search engine rankings. This indicates that it is exceptionally easy to rank for this keyword, as few or no other websites are targeting it.

Such keywords typically have low search volume but can be highly valuable for niche markets or specific queries.

Leveraging zero-difficulty keywords can be an effective strategy for new or small websites to quickly achieve visibility and attract targeted traffic without competing against more established sites.

What is a Good Keyword Difficulty?

A good keyword difficulty score generally ranges from 30 to 50. Keywords within this range strike a balance between being relatively easier to rank for and having a decent search volume.

For new or smaller websites, targeting keywords with a difficulty score below 30 can be advantageous, as they offer a better chance of ranking higher without facing intense competition.

Conversely, established websites with higher domain authority might target keywords with difficulty scores above 50 to leverage their existing strength and compete for more competitive terms.


Understanding what is keyword difficulty is crucial for effective SEO. It helps you figure out which keywords are worth targeting by showing how tough the competition is. This way, you can focus on terms that give you the best shot at ranking well without wasting time and resources.

By understanding keyword difficulty, you can fine-tune your content, make smarter decisions, boost your website’s visibility, and drive more organic traffic.

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Written by Julia McCoy

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