Keyword difficulty is a score SEO tools use to determine how easy it is to rank for a search term. Here’s how to calculate keyword difficulty and select the right ones to rank your website faster.

Here, you’ll find: 

  1. What is keyword difficulty?
  2. Why is keyword difficulty important?
  3. How is keyword difficulty calculated?
  4. How to check your potential to rank (recommended tools)
  5. What affects your ranking potential
  6. What is a good keyword difficulty score
  7. How to find the best keywords to increase your ranking potential (Expert tips
  8. Keyword difficulty: Through the lens of PPC
  9. Keyword difficulty for PPC, is it different?

How can you tell a keyword is easy to rank for? By looking at its keyword difficulty score in SEO tools.

Attempting to rank for a search term that’s deemed “very difficult” is tough, depending on your site’s authority and other factors.

Certain search terms are more challenging to rank for than others, depending on the industry, and the authority of your competition. But this doesn’t mean that going for the low-hanging fruit (aka low-difficulty keywords) will guarantee you a spot in the top results.

So, when building your search engine optimization (SEO) strategy or beginning the keyword research process, evaluate keyword options based on multiple factors, such as topical authority, target audience, and business value.

New to all of this? Don’t worry — we’ll break it all down below.

What is keyword difficulty?

Keyword difficulty is a metric marketers and SEO consultants use to estimate the toughness of ranking higher than competitors in the top ten organic search results for a particular keyword.

Some refer to this as “ranking difficulty” or “SEO difficulty”. The way to tell is to use an SEO tool that scores keywords from 0 (easy) to 100 (very hard).

(Image: Ahrefs keyword tool)

For example, if you enter the search term “social media marketing” into the keyword difficulty tool on Ahrefs, you’ll see it has a 93/100 score, indicating it’s challenging to rank for.

Alternatively, the term “vegan beauty products” has a score of 24/100 (moderately easy) while “travel marketing campaigns” has a 4/100 (easy) score.

The higher the score, the more effort required to break into the top search results. Be careful not to confuse keyword difficulty with “Competition,” a metric in Google Keyword Planner that estimates the difficulty level of ranking in paid search results or pay-per-click (PPC) campaigns.

More on this later.

Why is keyword difficulty important?

Keyword difficulty guides your keyword selection process. It shows what you’re up against once you attempt to snatch the top spots of the search engine result pages (SERPs).

Armed with this information, you can:

  • Take a quantitative approach to selecting keywords
  • Make an educated decision on which keywords to prioritize
  • Better prepare and position yourself to beat the competition
  • Plan your content around search terms that’ll drive traffic to your site

Keyword difficulty shouldn’t be considered in isolation during keyword research. But it validates which keywords to pursue.

How is keyword difficulty calculated?

Typically, you calculate keyword difficulty by evaluating the websites ranking in the top organic search results.

The factors commonly considered are:

  • Domain Authority (DA). The strength and credibility of the top-ranking domains
  • Page Authority (PA). The trustworthiness of the individual pages or URLs
  • Backlink profile. The average number of referring domains that point to the top pages
  • Search intent. The relevance of content to what searchers are looking for

But, note that keyword difficulty scores fluctuate across various tools because each uses a different algorithm to calculate it. So there’s no way to tell which score is accurate, which is why we recommend manually checking keyword difficulty based on your personalized metric.

(Image: Moz)

Here’s how some of the popular tools calculate keyword difficulty.

How Ahrefs calculates keyword difficulty

Ahrefs keyword difficulty checker considers the number of referring domains the top 10 ranking pages have. The higher the number, the higher the difficulty score. It doesn’t factor in on-page factors.

How Moz calculates keyword difficulty

Moz’s Keyword Explorer tool calculates keyword difficulty by taking an average of the PA of the top 10 search results. But there are several factors that determine this score, such as DA, homepages, query term use, and projected click-through rate (CTR).

How Semrush calculates keyword difficulty

The keyword difficulty score in Semrush uses several calculations for:

  • Median number of referring domains directing traffic to the ranking URLs
  • Median ratio of dofollow / nofollow links to these URLs
  • Search intent, and other SERP-related characteristics
  • Median authority score of top-ranking domains

How Mangools/KWFinder calculates keyword difficulty

Mangools is a keyword research tool that calculates the overall Link Profile Strength (LPS) for every website that ranks on page one of the SERPs. It uses metrics selected by Moz and Majestic.

It then calculates the high and low LPS values to come up with an overall keyword SEO difficulty score. Using this formula, the team predicts that low-authority web pages can outrank high-authority web pages.

How MarketMuse calculates keyword difficulty

MarketMuse can also check keyword difficulty. It claims that its difficulty score is relative to Google’s content-specific ranking factors.

The formula includes:

  • Topical Authority. How deeply you’ve covered a specific topic and how well your pages on that topic perform
  • Competitive Advantage. How likely you are to succeed at ranking for a keyword based on your site’s unique situation (your personalized difficulty)

(Image: MarketMuse)

So a website that regularly publishes high-performing content on a cluster of topics/keywords will have a higher competitive advantage and a lower personalized difficulty rating. Think of how easy it would be for Semrush to rank for “keyword research” vs. a site with barely any history covering that search term.

Ultimately, the real difficulty score is relative to your website. Likewise, the level of effort required to rank will depend on both your authority (domain, page, and topic) and your site’s unique advantage (keywords you currently rank for and niche expertise).

How to check your potential to rank (+ recommended tools)

According to Joshua Hardwick, Head of Content at Ahrefs, “Ranking is relative” because “no keyword difficulty score takes everything that affects competition into account”.

Keeping this in mind, Hardwick recommends that “you should always manually review the top-ranking pages before creating content”. This way, you can accurately determine how much effort it would take you to get into the top ten search results.

We’ll show you how.

Step 1: Install these SEO browser extensions

Go to the Chrome web store, search for and install these two extensions:

  • MozBar (Free)
  • Keywords Everywhere ($1.25/mo)

They’ll give you access to keyword and site data, such as search volume, Cost per Click (CPC), related SEO keywords, PA, and DA. You can also explore beyond the first page of Google if you wish. Use this data to assess your potential to beat the top-ranking sites, and find low-competition keywords to rank for.

Step 2: Open a new tab and search for your keyword

Type your keyword into the search bar and hit enter. Scroll through the search results and take note of metrics, such as PA, Links, Links Analysis, and search traffic per month.

Step 3: Analyze the top-ranking organic results

Let’s imagine your target keyword is “vegan beauty products”. Here’s what you’ll see:

(Image: Google search)

The overall domain authority is pretty high, but the page’s authority is much lower. This means you have a chance to beat this competitor on a page level.

Next, answer these questions:

    • How many unique pages are linking to the URL? You’ll find this by looking at the PA: Links. Take note of those with relatively low numbers because it means with good effort, you can outrank them.
    • What’s the quality of backlinks? You’ll find this by clicking on Link Analysis. If the top linking domains have a relatively low DA, low-quality links, or high spam score, then you stand a chance of ranking in the top 10 by garnering links from trusted high-authority sites.

(Image: Moz)

  • What’s missing in the on-page optimization? Click the Moz Page Analysis icon at the top. Examine the on-page elements and schema markup. Take note of what’s missing so you can include it in your site.
  • Does the content fulfill the E-E-A-T requirement? Check for relevant content. Is the content covered in-depth? Does it offer more insight than other articles on the same topic? Look out for expert quotes and an article author — do they hold industry experience?. How’s the user experience? When was it last updated? These factors determine the relevance and quality of the content. If it’s lacking in any of these areas, you have an opportunity to swoop in and take that spot.
  • Does the content address search intent? When you search “Vegan beauty products,” you’ll see that the top results are either product links or product roundups. This means the search intent is commercial (searchers are considering options) and transactional (they’re ready to buy). Do all the top pages target this intent? If so, then make sure yours does as well. If they don’t, it could mean there’s mixed intent, so consider your target audience and content goals when identifying which route to take.

Step 4: Assess your site’s competitive advantage

To beat any page in the top SERPs, you need something they don’t. This could be niche expertise, topical authority, higher domain ratings, more resources to produce outstanding content, good public relations (PR), or a different approach to SEO.

  • What’s your domain’s Brand Authority? If it’s under 20, you have a lower chance of ranking and you’ll need to focus on low-competition, longtail, and localized keywords that can drive qualified traffic to your site. Keep track of your authority using the Domain Overview tool.
  • Can you publish content that adds new and unique information to what’s already in the top 10 results? Refer to the E-E-A-T requirement and use it to conduct a content audit.
  • Do you have topical authority? Take stock of the clusters of related content you have covered in depth, how much organic traffic you get from them, and how many keywords you rank for. This is where those SEO tools will come in handy.
  • What is your site’s optimum difficulty score? Use the Moz Ranking Keyword tool to assess keywords your site ranks for and calculate the difficulty score you can potentially rank for.

Sound like a lot? It can be when you’re a brand strapped for time. Luckily, we can do all of this for you and build a successful content strategy. Book a free SEO consultation with our team today.

What affects your ranking potential?

The factors that affect your ranking potential are the same factors considered when calculating the keyword difficulty metric.

These include:

  • The authority of competitors already ranking for a specific keyword
  • The content quality and its relevance to search intent
  • The number and authority score of backlinks
  • Your website’s domain and topical authority.

What is a good keyword difficulty score?

The truth: no number or range can be classified as a good score. Since keyword rankings are relative, it’s better to focus more on your potential to rank.

A general rule of thumb is that if you run a relatively new site, target a lower tier of keyword difficulty that matches your level of authority.

However, if your site isn’t new and has successfully moved from point 0 to point 1, Sophia Orji, content marketing lead at the ecommerce platform Selar, advises that you “use the 80-20 rule. Go for 20% high-difficulty keywords and 80% low difficulty, and adjust the ratio as you grow.”

Likewise, Gianluca Ferruggia, general manager at B2B marketplace DesignRush, adds that his approach to choosing a good score is categorizing target keywords into tiers based on difficulty:

  • Tier 1 keywords: (>60) have a high search volume and are exceedingly high difficulty. These are moonshot targets.
  • Tier 2 keywords: (40-60) contain medium-difficulty mid-tail keywords with decent organic traffic potential, which he considers “more attainable goals.”
  • Tier 3 keywords: (<40) focus on the long-tail, hyper-specific keywords and are the easiest to rank for.

We recommend you take a three-pronged approach when targeting keywords based on difficulty. Break your keyword targets down by difficulty — high, medium, and low. From there, build ad copy and landing page assets that satisfy the intent of the keyword. We did exactly that for WindRiver, leading to solid performance growth.

How to find the best keywords to increase your ranking potential (Expert tips)

The best way to achieve this is to prioritize:

  • The lowest-hanging fruit
  • Keywords that drive business value
  • Ones that can generate a substantial amount of traffic
  • Keywords that are a good balance between competitive and realistic

Focus on relevance first, not difficulty

Many experts we interviewed echoed the same sentiment: focus on keywords that are relevant to your product and audience interests. If a keyword is low-difficulty with substantial traffic but isn’t relevant to what you sell or has unclear search intent, ignore it.

The only reason to focus on low-difficulty keywords is if they drive business value, not because they’re the easiest to rank for.

Strike a balance between high-difficulty and low-difficulty keywords

“If a keyword seems a little ‘unachievable’ because of its difficulty, I try to go either with a lower-difficulty synonym or target a bunch of tangential keywords to build enough authority around the topic,” says Afnan Rehan, an SEO Consultant at the content creation platform Wizeo. “Once that’s done, it’s pretty easy to rank for the more difficult and higher volume keywords.”

Lauren Funaro, Head of Content at the AI Process Documentation company Scribe, also recommends that you, “Start with the low-difficulty keywords to show Google you’re an authority on the topic. Then once those start ranking quickly, you can focus on the keywords with more difficulty and high potential traffic.”

Find low-competition keywords that drive business value

After finding relevance and balance, targeting low-competition keywords will allow you to rank quickly.

These are keywords that low-authority websites rank for in the top 10. They’re also likely to have a low difficulty score.

(Image: Google search)

  • Use the Keywords Everywhere and MozBar extensions again to see the search data, and find keywords with relevant search intent
  • Make a list of 5 to 10 keywords you want to target
  • Type one into the Google search bar and look at the autocomplete long-tail keywords
  • Take note of keywords with a significant monthly search volume, but low competition (e.g 0.05, 0.2)
  • Don’t worry if the search volume seems insignificant now, you’re targeting a niche audience
  • Select one of the suggested keywords and run the query, then analyze the PA, DA, and number of referring links in the top results
  • Make a list of pages with a low PA and DA, especially if the authority is lower than yours
  • Repeat for all your main keywords

To speed up the process, use one of the keyword tools we mentioned earlier. Most of our experts recommend Ahrefs, so start there. Here’s how to find low-competition keywords on Ahrefs.

Another option you can try is KWFinder which is free for your first few searches.

  • Go to KWFinder
  • Run the search query for your target keyword
  • Scroll through the table on the left. Pay attention to the columns “Trend,” “Search,” and “KD”

(Image: KW Finder)

You’ll notice that the longtail keyword “social media management packages” has a 17 difficulty score, a 960 search volume, and a 67% keyword interest growth. That’s a perfect low-competition keyword to target.

Create clusters that increase your topical authority

Funaro, who recently grew Scribe’s estimated monthly traffic from 8,000-70,000, strongly recommends, “creating and strengthening content clusters, instead of single pieces of content.”

She shares that this helped her achieve significant success in ranking multiple times for high-difficulty keywords.

Here’s how she did it:

  • Employed the hub and spoke model
  • Targeted tangential keywords with lower keyword difficulty to show topical authority
  • Interlinked to a high-difficulty keyword page from pages with high-traffic
  • Studied what was ranking in the SERPs and prioritized “information gain” to exceed what was already ranking
  • Monitored and optimized as needed after publishing

Keyword difficulty: Through the lens of PPC

Keyword selection in PPC is just as essential in competing for ad placements as it is in ranking in the top ten organic search results.

The ranking battle doesn’t end in organic search results because advertisers also bid on competitive search terms in PPC campaigns to ensure they skip to the top of SERPs.

With PPC, keyword difficulty is an equation based on quality score and is used to rate the quality and relevance of your ads. It factors in:

  • Expected clickthrough rate (CTR) – How your ads historically perform
  • Ad relevance – How closely your ads align with your keywords
  • Landing page experience – The content’s relevance, usefulness, and user-friendliness

Keyword difficulty guides your SEO strategy, but it’s the quality score that guides your bidding strategy.

Combining both SEO and PPC increases competitive advantage and gets you closer to target audiences. So, if you’ve been contemplating running campaigns in paid search, this is your sign to do it.

Keyword difficulty for PPC, is it different?

In theory, keyword difficulty for PPC isn’t that much different from organic search. For example, when considering keyword selection for Google Ads, you must prioritize relevant keywords that align with your target audience’s search queries.

To rank your ads on Google, you need amazing ad copy, an optimized bidding strategy, and highly-targeted keywords.

At HawkSEM, we use our proprietary software, ConversionIQ, to identify high-converting keywords. These are the search terms your audiences use to find and purchase your product or service. We then implement them into PPC and SEO campaigns to attract more people who are most likely to convert.

The takeaway

Choosing the right keywords can significantly improve the effectiveness of your SEO strategy and PPC campaigns. If you target the wrong keywords, they’ll drive worthless traffic to your site and waste your resources.

When selecting keywords, remember that the level of difficulty it takes to rank is relative, so don’t rely on one tool to dictate your target keywords. Take a personalized approach to evaluating search terms. Run your own SERP analysis, find a balance between high-difficulty and low-difficulty keywords. And make sure to adopt this approach when bidding for keywords in PPC campaigns.

Need a team to support your search marketing efforts? Chat with us today to get started.

Contact HawkSEM for Free Consultation