PPC – Keyword difficulty in SEO guide: Everything you need to know

PPC - Keyword difficulty in SEO guide: Everything you need to know


Keyword difficulty isn’t one of SEO’s hottest topics or latest trends. But it is a powerful metric when you understand its potential.

It can help you to make educated decisions about your prospects of ranking for specific terms, allowing you to make tactical choices that underpin your SEO strategy.

Here’s what keyword difficulty means for SEO, how the score is measured and tips for using it to get better results.

What is keyword difficulty?

Keyword difficulty is a metric that quantifies how competitive a keyword is and, therefore, how challenging it’s likely to be to rank for it. It is displayed as a value from 1 (low competition) to 100 (extremely high competition).

What does the score tell you?

Keyword difficulty in SEO tells you how difficult it’s likely to be to rank for a particular keyword in relation to the strength of the competition. However, there’s no standard for calculating the difficulty or competition to rank for a particular keyword. 

Various tools measure it differently, and scores can vary significantly based on which one you use. 

If you’re interested in this, it’s worth checking out Backlinko’s research into keyword difficulty scores across different SEO tools. 

Most tools factor the strength and number of referring domains pointing to the top ranking results in the search engines into their calculation, but many use additional metrics too. 

Where do you find it?

There are a variety of different SEO tools that provide a keyword difficulty checker. 

It is usually found in the keyword research function of a tool and displayed alongside the search volume metric, labeled difficulty, competition or KD

To check the competition for keywords at scale, you will likely need a paid keyword research tool. Here are some of the most well-known:

Ahrefs

Navigate to Keywords Explorer and you can begin your search. The difficulty score is clearly labeled and color-coded along with descriptive text to help you understand the difficulty level. 

How is it calculated?

Ahrefs CMO Tim Soulo explains in detail: 

“Here at Ahrefs, we use a simple method for calculating KD. We pull the top 10 ranking pages for your keyword and look up how many websites link to each of them. The more links the top-ranking pages for your keyword have, the higher its KD score. Very simple and very actionable.”

Semrush

In the Keyword Overview section of Semrush, you’ll find their difficulty metrics. There’s also a KD column in keyword reports. 

Semrush - Keyword difficulty

How is it calculated?

Semrush uses SERP analysis, keyword analysis and a score weighting based on locality. You can read the full details here. 

Moz

The keyword explorer in Moz gives you an immediate score that’s easy to find and interpret. 

Moz - Keyword difficulty

How is it calculated?

In their help section, Moz explains: 

“Keyword Difficulty in Keyword Explorer takes into account the Page Authority (PA) and Domain Authority (DA) scores of the results ranking on the first page of Google for the given query, as well as modifying intelligently for projected click-through rate (CTR) of a given page. Keyword Difficulty puts more weight on higher-ranking, more visible pages, and less weight on lower-ranking, less visible pages. The formula also accounts for newer pages on powerful domains that may have DA scores but have not yet been assigned PA values. The scores roughly correspond to a weighted average of the PA of the top 10, and the other inputs (DA, homepages, query term use, etc.) modify that weighted average.”

Sistrix

Head to Keywords in the top navigation to reach the keyword explorer. 

Enter a seed term or a list of terms. You’ll reach an overview page if you use a seed term, and the difficulty score is displayed for that specific term. 

Drill down into a keyword list under Contains all keywords to reach a table with competition and keyword difficulty.

Sistrix - Keyword difficulty

How is it calculated?

Sistrix states they use “a number of values” to calculate their difficulty score. They go on to say:

“Around 15 values ​​for each keyword are regularly analysed and summarised in this key figure. These are quite intuitive metrics such as the number of searches, but also more complex observations such as the number of start pages (not sub-pages) in the top 10.

The value has a logarithmic structure. In practice, this means that an increase in the competition key figure by 10 points represents roughly twice as intense competition in the SERPs for this keyword.”

As you might expect, each tool is tight-lipped on what exactly goes into its calculation. Each approach is quite different, which explains the varying scores.  

Quick tip: Pick a tool for each project and stick to it. Don’t mix data from different tools, as you won’t be comparing like-for-like when it comes to keyword difficulty. 


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Is keyword difficulty good or bad?

Keyword difficulty in itself is neither good nor bad. It’s simply information.

OK, if you have a brand new site to launch with a small budget and all the keywords that are relevant to you have extremely high competition, that’s bad. But that’s also pretty lousy business planning.

Having an understanding of keyword competitiveness is undoubtedly good. Appreciating how it can work for you gives you a head start on the competition. 

What is high/low keyword difficulty?

In general terms, a high-difficulty keyword has a lot of competition, making it more challenging to rank highly in the organic search results.

You’ll likely find some brand names you recognize ranking for high-difficulty terms. 

For example, let’s take the keyword “iphone 14.” Sistrix gives it a competition score of 67% in the U.S.:

Sistrix iphone 14

The SERPs look like this:

Sistrix iphone 14

Up against Apple, CNN and Wikipedia, we can see that ranking in the top 10 would be a challenge for smaller brands. 

Broadly speaking, low difficulty means that the competition isn’t as fierce. You might find less relevant results and may spot some niche websites that aren’t household names.

Now let’s switch that earlier example to a term with much lower difficulty “how to turn off iphone 14.”

Image 106 800x366

The competition level is just 33%. You’re still up against some big names, but you can also see some in there that you might not recognize.

This shows that if you create some really useful and relevant content, you might have a shot at ranking fairly well.

Low competition

When you’re looking at keyword competition, everything is relative. 

This is why I love using color scales to review a keyword list. It helps to visualize the highs and lows in relation to the dataset you’re working from. 

Once you’ve drawn up a list of keywords you’re interested in for a new page or piece of content, you can look at the difficulty spread across the whole list. 

What is a good keyword difficulty?

This is where things get tricky. A “good” keyword difficulty is a sweet spot relative to all the other considerations you have to make. 

The best approach is to gather all the relevant information, including competition scores, and use this all to make strategic decisions. 

It’s no easy task, but the more frequently you do it, the more you learn. 

Factors to consider when looking for a good keyword

There are various considerations to make when assessing a keyword’s viability. It’s a balance between the following:

  • Search volume.
  • Your site’s current strength in the market. 
  • The strength of your backlink profile.
  • How competitive a term is in relation to other terms you could target (difficulty).
  • How well your content can fulfill search intent.

You’ll come to your decisions by weighing up these factors. 

How do I choose keyword difficulty?

When you’re reviewing difficulty scores, it’s not a case of choosing a number or a specific difficulty level. It’s simply a useful metric to help you understand the playing field. 

Difficulty scores are a small but important part of choosing keywords for SEO. My process is as follows:

  • Enter my seed keyword into an SEO tool that provides search volume and keyword competition or difficulty metrics.
  • Select all the relevant keyword options and save them in a list.
  • Export the list to Google Sheets or Excel.
  • Sort by search volume (highest first).
  • Format the search volume and keyword difficulty columns with color scales.
  • Use the color scales as visual clues to spot keywords with high(er) search volumes and low(er) difficulty scores.
  • Pick out one or two primary and a handful of secondary keywords you’re most interested in.
  • Review the search intent for this refined list, look at what currently ranks and be honest with yourself about whether you plan to create a page that will fulfill that search intent.  
  • Remove any keywords from your refined list that don’t line up with search intent.
  • Always keep the domain you’re working on in mind. If you’re a big brand with a high authority site, you might not need to be as concerned with keyword competition as a small to medium-sized business that needs to seize every opportunity to gain ground in the SERPs. 
  • You should be left with a qualified list of target keywords to help you focus your content. 

Here’s an example of how I use color scales to visualize the opportunities:

Color-scaled keyword opportunities

Here, “wall stickers for kids” looks like an interesting opportunity with a relatively high search volume (for my current dataset) and relatively low difficulty. 

Without keyword research, I might have assumed that “wall stickers” was the obvious term to go after, but it’s much more competitive and has a slightly lower search volume.

So assuming my range is for kids, I’ve found a possible target keyword here. 

But… are keywords still important for SEO?

There’s a much higher focus on AI, machine learning, natural language processing and voice search today, and even Google Analytics has hidden a lot of its keyword data (not provided). 

So you’re probably wondering why it’s even worth all this time and effort considering a keyword difficulty score.

Yet, keywords are still vitally important. This type of research gives you insight into what your target market is looking for and how they search for it. 

This can be interesting, surprising and even amusing at times! There’s no filter when we search as we have a level of anonymity that allows direct and honest questions to be asked. 

It also informs you about what your competition views as important and how you might be able to outsmart them or spot an opportunity they haven’t. 

Keyword research can help you uncover new opportunities for products, product ranges or content.

Without regularly checking what people are searching for, you could miss out on new trends that initially have lower difficulty because the competition hasn’t caught up yet. 

How you create good, helpful and authoritative content to satisfy these queries is a different question, but understanding your marketplace in the SERPs is a step you should never miss. 

A focused keyword list helps you keep your eye on the opportunities and forms the backbone of your overall strategy. 

How to find low-difficulty keywords

You can filter or sort any dataset by keyword difficulty to find low-competition keywords.

But if you want to begin your search by looking for keywords that are easier to rank for, here are a few methods you could also try: 

Adding search qualifiers

Refine your broad search by adding qualifiers. You can add words like “for,” “to” and “vs” to narrow down the options. You’ll get some more specific phrases, and usually, the difficulty score will be lower. 

Looking for the long tail

By their nature, long-tail queries tend to be more detailed, specific and lower competition. 

Because their search volumes are lower, there’s usually some low-hanging fruit for long-tail keywords.

Using tools like Google Trends, Pinterest Trends, TikTok Trends and Exploding Topics, look out for new areas of interest in your niche. 

If you identify these early enough, the competition will likely be lower. There’s always a gamble here, though. 

You can never be sure which trends will stick or how quickly the competition will catch on, potentially displacing your position in the SERPs. 

Why is keyword difficulty important?

There are so many reasons keyword difficulty is an essential metric in SEO:

It’s strategic

Keyword difficulty is really important because it allows us to think strategically. As time-poor SEOs, we want to make the biggest impact with our work.

Understanding the competition in the SERPs quickly and efficiently provides a huge help with that.

It helps us make decisions – lots of them

We can evaluate whether to spend a lot or a little effort on new content based on the level of competition. 

We can decide not to use any resources on trying to rank highly for certain keywords and gain recognition for highly competitive product ranges by other means like PPC, email or other forms of advertising. 

We can choose whether to focus our efforts on-page or off-page.    

It helps us to be smarter with our limited resources

When used as part of our strategy, keyword difficulty helps us to work smarter, not harder. 

It’s a metric that helps us narrow down large amounts of data quickly and understand our opportunities quickly. 

It can help you manage expectations

Sharing this metric with stakeholders can also help you to communicate more effectively. 

Having something quantifiable that demonstrates you’ll have to work harder or allocate more resources can help you secure the provision you need. 

Discussing this measure upfront can aid understanding, helping managers or business owners visualize why ranking for certain keywords is more challenging and might take longer. 

Managing keyword competition in your SEO campaigns

While I’m a huge advocate for collecting and reviewing keyword difficulty metrics, it’s also important not to get too hung up on them. 

As we’ve seen, each tool measures this notion in a different way. Keyword competition is more of a concept than an exact science. 

I like to see this data as a signpost, not an instruction. 

It’s there to help us make informed decisions at scale. You can read the signs and still choose to take a different turn. 

For example, if something looks too difficult, but it’s a key part of your product range or service provision, go for it anyway. 

It might just take a little longer to get to the place you’d like to be, but at least you’ll know what to expect.  

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.


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