What Is Keyword Difficulty And Why Is It Important

Keyword difficulty if a term you will often hear from digital marketers and find in SEO reports. And while it is partly self-explanatory and very widely used, you may still have some questions about what it precisely is, and how you can best use it to improve the rankings of your website. 

Here’s everything you need to know about keyword difficulty, how to measure it and why it’s important for SEO. 

What Is Keyword Difficulty?

Keyword difficulty is a metric that tells you how hard it will be to rank in Google’s top 10 organic results for a certain keyword. 

It’s a third-party metric, calculated by an SEO tool. It’s not Google’s own estimate, and should not be taken as such. It’s based on the tool’s algorithm, not Google’s. 

It is usually expressed on a scale from 0 to 100. The higher the number, the more difficult it should be to rank for that keyword. 

The most important thing you need to know about keyword difficulty, or KD, is that it does not represent an absolute ranking difficulty, but a relative one. 

What does this mean? For example, you may see that a keyword has a difficulty of 45, which is considered moderate to challenging. A small website with few backlinks and little authority will have a very hard time ranking for it. However, an authoritative website that already has plenty of related content that is ranking well can easily rank for this keyword in a matter of months. 

Other than the number itself, there are other factors to consider when trying to determine keyword difficulty, which we will get into in a moment. 

Why Is Keyword Difficulty Important? 

Keyword difficulty helps you make educated, thought-out decisions. Instead of blindly choosing the keywords to optimize content for, you can use keyword difficulty to figure out where to start. 

It will help you manage your resources too. For example, if you know a keyword is difficult to rank for, you will invest more time and energy into writing a great piece of content for it. If a keyword is very easy to rank for, you can afford to research a bit less. Note that you should always aim to produce the best content possible, but that you should throw maximum effort at more important, higher difficulty keywords. 

Keyword difficulty is also a good way to manage expectations. If you know a keyword will be challenging to rank for, you won’t be disappointed when you don’t break into the top ten in a matter of weeks. You’ll also know these are the pages you need to build more internal and external links for, so you can improve their chances of generating valuable link equity. 

How To Calculate Keyword Difficulty

The first thing you can do to check a keyword’s difficulty is to use an SEO tool for the task. However, it is important to know that every tool has its own system of calculating this metric, so don’t be surprised if you see different numbers from different tools. They can sometimes be vastly different. 

It’s best to choose one tool and stick to it. That way, you will be sticking to one scale and will be able to compare the difficulty of various keywords in a more reliable way. 

Since you already know that these tools give you a relative ranking difficulty, there are other factors to consider: 

How Many Backlinks Will You Need 

When deciding on the difficulty of a query, always check the number of backlinks the top ranking pages have. You will probably need to acquire more than they have to rank better, or at least from better sources. 

For example, if the top ranking website has 10 backlinks from medium quality websites, you can overtake them by acquiring 5 backlinks from high quality websites. 

If the keyword difficulty for a keyword is low, but the top pages have more backlinks than you can expect to generate, it might not be a good choice at the moment. 

How Authoritative Is The Competition 

Also check the authority of the top ranking pages. You can use the Domain Rating metric in Ahrefs, or the Domain Authority Score in SEMRush, but you can also look at the website yourself. 

Sites like Forbes, Good Housekeeping and Inc. have a very high authority and can be difficult to outrank. However, it’s far from impossible. You will just need to build comparable authority on the topic cluster you are writing about. 

Every niche and sub-niche also has its own most authoritative websites. You will get to know them as you keep doing keyword research. These will be the sites that pop up in the top results most often. 

What Is The Keyword’s Search Intent 

Search intent also plays an important role in determining keyword difficulty. If you don’t match it well, you won’t be able to rank well either.

For example, if someone is looking to find out more about internal linking tools and how best to use them, but we tried to rank a sales page for that intent, we would never make it to the top spot. 

How Good Is The Top Ranking Content 

Arguably the most important thing to consider about the top ranking pages is how good they are. What kind of information do they offer? How well is the page formatted? How easy is the page to read? Does it load fast? 

If the top ranking pages are subpar, i.e. if they are written in a mediocre way and offer little to no information, it will be easy to outwrite them. If they are written well, look for information they have not provided, or approach the subject from a different angle. 

Search engines are looking to show searchers the best possible content on a topic. Make sure that’s yours. 

How Authoritative And Relevant Is Your Website 

Finally, don’t forget to analyze the relevance and authority of your own website when trying to determine keyword difficulty. 

If you are just starting out, you will want to look for keywords with a very low difficulty. If you have already built up significant authority, you can target the big fish too. 

Make sure the keywords you are chasing are not just rankable, but relevant. You don’t want to attract an unqualified audience that is not likely to convert. 

What Tools To Use To Calculate Keyword Difficulty

There are dozens of tools that can help you calculate keyword difficulty. The most popular among them are:

  • KWFinder
  • Ahrefs’ Keyword Explorer
  • SEMRush’s Keyword Difficulty Tool 
  • SECockpit
  • Ubersuggest
  • Serpstat
  • Moz’ Keyword Explorer 

Remember that the key is to keep using the same tool, so as not to get conflicting information that will only confuse you. Choose either a tool you are already familiar with, or one that you like the look and pricing of. 

What Is A High Keyword Difficulty?

A high keyword difficulty is any that your website would be difficult to rank for. In the most general terms, anything above 80 is considered to be a challenge. However, for you, even 45 can be very high. 

Use the points we’ve outlined above to gauge whether a keyword will be difficult for you. 

Here are some general tips for targeting high keyword difficulty search terms:

  • Use these keywords for writing the pillar posts in a topic cluster. Also create a number of companion pieces that will target relevant, lower difficulty keywords. 
  • Write evergreen content around high difficulty keywords. Since it will take a long time to rank for them, don’t risk targeting a keyword that is only popular right now or seasonally. 
  • Keep building relevant backlinks to these posts. Promote them via your newsletter and social media. Ensure there is a constant stream of traffic to the page that does not include organic traffic

What Is A Low Keyword Difficulty? 

A low keyword difficulty is any that you can rank for easily, with minimal effort. All you should need to do is write a good piece of content. In all probability, you won’t even need to build any backlinks to the page yourself. 

In general terms, keyword difficulty below 20 is considered to be low. 

You should target low difficulty keywords if you have only recently launched your website. Target these keywords when you are first starting to cover a specific subject as well, even if you have already built up some authority writing about something else. 

Look for long-tail keywords. They are usually much lower in difficulty than their shorter counterparts. 

What Is A Good Keyword Difficulty To Target? 

Any low or medium difficulty keyword can be a good target. In general, the highest difficulty keywords will be hard to rank for even if you are Forbes. 

Before you settle on a keyword, take into consideration the points we have outlined above. They will help you understand what it would take to rank for a keyword, and whether or not you are able to do it at the moment. 

Keep a list of all interesting keywords on file. As you build up more authority, you can come back to those that seemed too much of a challenge a couple of months or years ago. 

How To Use Keyword Difficulty To Your Advantage

Now that you understand what keyword difficulty is and how to calculate it, here are some tips that will help you use the metric to your advantage:

  • Remember that keyword difficulty isn’t an accurate metric, nor is it absolute. Even if a tool tells you a term is difficult to rank for, you may discover that all you need to do is write a great piece of content and build a handful of backlinks. 
  • Always consider keyword difficulty in conjuntrue with search volume. If a keyword is difficult to rank for and sees very little traffic per month, it is probably not worth it. Bear in mind that search volume is not a precise metric either. 
  • Don’t forget to check out long-tail variations of keywords with a high difficulty. This is often where you will discover some hidden gems. 
  • Use your own experience and best judgment to gauge the difficulty of a keyword. Don’t trust any tool blindly, and always take a look at the top ranking results to see how difficult a keyword actually is. 
  • Pick one tool for measuring keyword difficulty and stick to it. Using more than one tool will only cause confusion. 
  • Always factor in the potential quality of your own content when determining keyword difficulty. If you are not able to match search intent or provide a better piece than what is already out there, you might not be able to rank well, even if the keyword difficulty is low. 
  • Don’t be afraid to go after high difficulty keywords, especially if they are extremely important to your target audience. Make a plan for promoting these pages and be patient. 
  • Your job does not end after you have published a page. You still need to promote it, build backlinks to it, and review and update it from time to time. 
  • Don’t forget the importance of internal links and topic clusters! Use Link Whisper to automate the internal linking process and ensure link equity is passed down from page to page.

Key Takeaways  

Keyword difficulty is a useful metric to take into account when planning your content strategy. As long as you remember that it’s not always accurate and that there are several factors to consider when determining it, you will soon learn how to choose the best keywords for your website. 

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