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A Beginner’s Guide to Keyword Difficulty (Plus Tips for Success)

Keyword research forms the foundation of every SEO strategy, and keyword difficulty is an essential metric to help evaluate the best keywords to target for your website. Understanding how keyword difficulty works and how different keyword tools measure ranking competition is critical to using this metric to find the right keywords to optimize your content for search engines. Read on to learn more!

Feb 22, 2023

7 m read

A keyword difficulty analysis helps you find keywords to target, whether you’re launching a new website or trying to improve the search visibility of an existing site. You need to outrank your competitors to get to coveted top spots on search engine results pages (SERPs), and understanding keyword difficulty is a critical piece of crafting a strategy that gets you there.

In this guide, I’ll explain how keyword difficulty works. You’ll learn how to analyze the competition and make the best use of your SEO resources. 

What Does Keyword Difficulty Mean?

Keyword difficulty, also known as SEO difficulty or keyword competition, assesses how hard it is to rank in search engine results for a particular keyword. Keyword difficulty is based on a few factors including, domain authority (DA), page authority, and quality of content.

  • High-difficulty keywords have a lot of tough competition and are harder to rank for.
  • Low-difficulty keywords have less competition and are relatively easier to rank for.

In general, broad search terms are more difficult to rank for, while more specific long-tail keywords pose less of a challenge.

How To Use Keyword Difficulty To Boost Organic Traffic

Once you’ve done some preliminary keyword research to find the Google search terms your customers are using, the next step to creating a strategy is to prioritize your keyword list based on the SEO keyword competition.

To do that, you’ll evaluate:

  • The quality of the top 10 pages currently ranking in SERPs for the targeted keyword.
  • What it would take for your optimized page to surpass the competition.

Ultimately, you’ll get a sense of how difficult it is to rank for individual keywords and whether you might see a return for the time and energy you invest trying to get to the first page of SERPs. 

Using a Keyword Difficulty Tool

Several SEO analytics tools like Moz, Ahrefs, and SEMrush provide keyword difficulty scores. Optimizing for search would be easy if you could plan your strategy around a single keyword difficulty score, but there’s more to it than meets the eye.

While a good keyword research tool can make SEO content creation more manageable, I always recommend that marketers look under the hood of each platform to understand how each calculates keyword difficulty.

How Popular Keyword Research Tools Measure Ranking Difficulty

In general, any keyword research tool you turn to will have its own proprietary formula for metrics like keyword difficulty. 


I love this question because it gets to the heart of why it can be so difficult to rank for your primary keywords. 

No person, business, or SEO tool knows for sure what’s happening inside the black box of Google’s algorithm. At best, we can observe top-ranking content and draw conclusions based on what we learn. 

Here’s a quick rundown of how the most popular tools calculate a keyword’s difficulty.

Ahrefs Keyword Difficulty

Ahrefs calculates its KD score by averaging the number of linking domains pointing to the first page results for a specific keyword, then plotting that number on a logarithmic scale from 0 (easy) to 100 (hard). 

This keyword difficulty score doesn’t take any other variables into account.

It’s also important to note that because Ahrefs plots its KD score on a logarithmic scale, it’s non-linear. What that means, in real terms, is that a KD of 50 isn’t a “medium” keyword difficulty. It’s hard. 

Because link profile is the only factor for this score, it will correspond directly to how many links Ahrefs estimates a page needs to rank for competitive keywords. 

Learn more about the importance of external links as a ranking factor in our article about broken link building.

Ahrefs keyword difficulty example

SEMrush Keyword Difficulty

SEMrush uses a keyword difficulty index based on a percentage from 0 (easy) to 100% (hard). SEMrush isn’t as transparent as Ahrefs about how they arrive at their difficulty score. They say their KD calculation considers a “variety of factors” of the top-20 ranking domains. These factors include the median number of referring domains in each link profile, the ratio of dofollow/nofollow links, and the authority scores of ranking websites (based on their proprietary formula).  

semrush keyword difficulty example.

Moz Keyword Difficulty

Moz’s difficulty score rates keywords on a scale from 1 (easy) to 100 (hard). According to Moz, they arrive at that score by analyzing the top ten organic links on a search engine results page.  

The Moz KD score is based on two of its other proprietary metrics, page authority and domain authority. It’s important to note that neither Moz’s domain or page authority metrics directly correlate to how search engines evaluate authority. 

Learn more about what domain authority means.

Moz keyword difficulty example.

Which Keyword Difficulty Score is Better?

No one KD score is better than the others. They’re all different paths to arrive at the same place, which is an educated guess about how Google ranks existing pages for individual search queries. 

Two things to remember: 

  1. Compare apples to apples. It’s okay to cross-reference different tools but systematically apply them to your entire keyword list instead of cherry-picking different results between the tools.
  2. Never conflate a proprietary keyword tool metric with a prediction of exactly how a search engine will rank your content. 

While there are variations in keyword tool metrics, other factors that are commonly believed to influence ranking include:

Some top-ranked pages will tick all of these boxes, but some won’t. If you can offer better quality content than the competition, there is potential to rank above them. 

How long it takes to rank your content will depend on the difficulty of your chosen keywords and your commitment to a link-building strategy.

A Closer Look at Keyword Competition

As I mentioned earlier, keyword difficulty scores from a keyword tool are good to start, but a manual competitive analysis will reveal additional, valuable information. 

Because Google is the final arbiter of which content ranks for specific keywords, I recommend starting your competitive analysis in search results. It is amazing how much a simple search can tell you!

Enter your keyword into Google search and examine the first page of organic search results. 

Scrutinize the top-ranking page for:

1. Content Quality

Remember, Google wants to serve up content that satisfies user intent and is informative. 

  • How well-written is the content?
  • Is the information it provides current?
  • Does the article use experts, citations, and plenty of resources?
  • Is it an in-depth treatment of the topic?
  • Does the web page also contain images, graphs, and videos?

Ask yourself how you’ll create something better than what is currently being served to users. 

2. Domain Authority

Google prefers to rank content from an authoritative domain when it can. If the top results for your search term include pages from an undisputed authority, it might be more challenging to rank for. 

That being said, it’s unusual for every top snippet to come from an authority, so the presence of some heavy hitters isn’t reason enough not to abandon your preferred keywords.

3. Referring Domains (Backlinks)

The keyword difficulty metrics of the three most popular keyword tools I outlined above all share one thing in common. Each one of them considers backlinks in their evaluation of keyword competition. That’s because Google has been abundantly clear that backlinks are an important ranking factor.  

You can’t ignore backlinks as a ranking factor.

My go-to tool to find referring domains is Ahrefs’ Keyword Difficulty Checker. Since Ahrefs’ KD metric is based solely on backlinks, it’s clear to see how steep the climb to page one will be for any given keyword.

keyword difficulty example

In this example for “Google trends,” a score of 57 indicates that it will take 113 backlinks to outrank top content. 

Here’s where you consider the keyword in the context of your broader strategy.

  1. What is its strategic value to your business?
  2. Can you allocate the necessary resources to link building activities? 
  3. How fast do you need this page to rank?

Whether or not you can rank for a difficult keyword depends on the time or resources you’re willing to invest in the process.

If 95 quality backlinks seem like too steep a price to pay for your expected ROI, I’d recommend focusing on longer-tail, niche keywords.

get started with keyword research download

Keyword Difficulty FAQs

Now that you know how competitive your keywords are, you can decide which ones to prioritize and how. 

Here are some frequently asked questions to help you strategize.

What is a “Good” Keyword Difficulty?

It depends — generally, the lower the competition, the better. But you need to consider current search volume, click-through rate, and traffic potential. As a rule, you can expect to rank faster for low competition keywords, but there may be a trade-off against high search volume. 

Some keywords are the exception to the rule and offer both high search volume and low ranking difficulty.

Understanding keyword difficulty helps you plan a long-term SEO strategy and gauge how long your content might take to usurp top-ranking pages.

Can I Target High-Competition Keywords?

Yes. You don’t have to avoid high-difficulty keywords. If your business needs to rank for a particular keyword, go for it. It will only get harder to rank for tough target keywords if you wait. The big caveat is to go into it with a realistic understanding of the road ahead.

When you understand a keyword is high difficulty, you can plan your strategy appropriately and compensate for the fact that it will take longer to see returns on your investment.

Should I Mix Low and High-Competition Keywords?

Yes! You want to develop a mixture of relevant keywords based on varying ranking difficulty. One way to do this is through topic clusters — target higher difficulty, broad terms with pillar content, and lower difficulty keywords with spin-off pages that detail a topic.

How Much Should I Rely on Keyword Difficulty?

There are many factors to consider when doing keyword research for an SEO campaign, including: 

  • Search intent
  • average organic search volume
  • Google search trends
  • average click-through rates, and 
  • traffic potential. 

Keyword difficulty is one tool to help you find the right mix of the best keywords. The more you know about your competition, the better informed your decision-making.

The Bottom Line

It’s time-consuming to run manual keyword research to identify search terms that fit your business goals. Consider partnering with an SEO specialist who can help you customize a plan to lift your business to the top of search results. 

We offer a range of SEO services for all kinds of companies, from small businesses to enterprise operations, so that you can find a solution for your needs and budget. 

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