Keyword Difficulty: What Is It And How To Use It In Our SEO?

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keyword difficulty

We often mention keyword difficulty.

As you can presume, it refers to how hard it is to rank for a certain word or phrase.

In fact, when analyzing a keyword, most people will take into consideration volume of monthly searches as well as the difficulty. These two are often presented as the most important factors when determining whether or not you are going to pursue a keyword.

But, there is a catch.

Generally speaking, keyword difficulty is not something that Google uses or refers to. In fact, it is a measurement invented by SEO professionals as a way to better describe particular keywords and what we can expect from them.

Later on, we will show how different SEO companies utilize this metric.

Anyway, unlike monthly volume which is represented by an exact number, keyword difficulty is more of an approximation. Nevertheless, it is a necessary ingredient for our keyword research given that we don’t have a better starting point.

Keyword research

Before we get into keyword difficulty, it is necessary to mention keyword research as a whole.

Basically, this is the initial, crucial process that can make or break your website. Like with anything else in business, you need to optimize and choose your battles carefully.

Research is a process that can answer two questions:

  1. Can a keyword drive enough traffic to justify creation of content?
  2. Are you able to reach top positions in Google with that keyword?

First thing that needs to be mentioned is that these two are mutually exclusive. In other words, keyword that can bring you a lot of traffic will be very hard to rank for and vice versa. This is to be expected as everybody is prepared to fight for higher traffic and website exposure.

Then, it seems that keyword research is pointless?


There are billions and billions of keywords. In fact, the number of keywords exceeds the number of phrases used in normal language given that it includes a lot of typos, misspelling and poorly defined queries. Because of this, the system will not be perfect and there will always be room to make an impact.

In fact, I often like to compare picking keywords to picking other goods.

You will start using a keyword in one of these two cases:

  1. Keyword is undervalued (it provides good traffic compared to its difficulty)
  2. Keyword will rise in value (you are one of the first to write about upcoming events)

Picking just the right keywords will have an enormous impact on your website. In fact, if you are constantly able to pick wining keywords, your traffic can only go up.

Do not forget that keyword research is just a small part of optimization. Content which you create still needs to be promoted, linked to by the bloggers and shared by your audience. Research is only there to tell us how far we can go with a particular phrase if we properly optimize the page consisting it.

Keyword difficulty

So, how can we find some juicy keywords that are easy to rank for?

There are three main factors that are form the keyword difficulty score when it comes to SEO:

  1. The amount of referring domains pointing to each of the top 10 results in Google
  2. Moz Domain Authority of the top 10 competitors (you can also use some alternative authority metric such as Majestic’s TrustFlow or Ahrefs’ Domain Rank)
  3. The quality of the content published on each of the top 10 results (quality, length, on-page SEO factors, etc.)
  4. The amount of results the query returns (generally speaking, the more the results the higher the keyword difficulty)

As you can see, keyword difficulty mostly comes down to total number of pages and overall use of that keyword on the internet. It is a pretty simple principle but as I previously mentioned, it is more of an approximation.

However, there is an even better way of determining keyword difficulty without using number of some complex SEO tools.

If you wish to learn how hard it would be to compete for a keyword, you can do it by checking websites ranking on the first two pages. Namely, if the results are full of high quality, authoritative website, your competition will be rather stiff. In the end, it is really hard to compete against pages that have such an enormous inherent advantage.

You should always seek your opportunity against smaller competitors. Another good way to tell if a keyword is easy to rank for is the number of YouTube videos, Yahoo! answers and Quora posts in top 10 results.

How does this work?

In a nutshell, whenever a person types in a keyword into Google search bar, he is actually trying to find an answer to a question. Sometimes, there will be a lot of good answers provided by big websites.

Occasionally (whether due to a strange question or lack of websites covering the topic), most of the answers will be provided by websites such as Yahoo! and Quora; the same websites people turn to when they are unable to get a relevant answer from a highly authoritative website within the niche.

Google will always give advantage to websites that are specialized in the topic and that is precisely where you can seek your opportunity.

Impact of links

Let’s say you wish to rank among the top five results for a particular keyword.

We already mentioned the top factors that have impact on rankings such as the overall volume. But, these are more of global factors than anything else. The fact that there are hundreds of websites ranking for a particular keyword doesn’t tell much.

Also, it shouldn’t change your strategy if you are determined to pursue a particular keyword. With this data, we are not able to make calculations. Yes, it can help us compare different keywords but it doesn’t give the answer to most important question.

What do I have to do to make it to the top?

This is why we need to consider something else.

There are numerous factors that can impact your rankings (keep on reading to learn the 4 most important ones). Some of them, such as proper keyword usage, can easily be improved by your content writer. In this case, we are interested in a factor which cannot be directly manipulated and that is the number of links which top competitors are receiving.

If you decide to perform a thorough keyword difficulty analysis, you should extract all the data regarding links top competitors are getting. After that, you can approximately determine how many links your article needs to rank in top 5.

However, you need to take this with a grain of salt.

Different links have different impact. For example, it is always better to get high quality links than low quality ones. In fact, link which you get from a high tier website can have the same impact as 100 links from small websites.

Best way of approaching the issue is by categorizing all the links a competitor is getting.

For example, one competitor has 100 links pointing to an article. After we learned this, we need to examine those links more closely. Categorize them according to their domain authority (for example from 0 – 10, from 10 – 20 etc.) This should be a good starting point telling you what you need to do in order to rank.

Google Keyword Planner

Besides before mentioned visual analysis, you should also use tools for determining keyword difficulty.

Those who just recently began blogging are probably shocked by the number of different SEO tools as their disposal. Truthfully, it can be quite overwhelming both for your brain and pocket. Some of these tools cost a lot of money which can be a big investment for people who do not have any savings.

No matter what, you should still optimize.

What is the solution?

Start using Google Keyword Planner.

Good thing about SEO is that everybody can do it. Of course, you won’t have nearly as impressive results as a seasoned professional but still, you will be able to gain insight into your website and things that need to be changed. One of the main reasons is because tools such as Google Keyword Planner have rather simplistic interface. You can get all the information on the spot.

Furthermore, Google Keyword Planner is a great starting point due to the fact that it is free. All you have to do is leave a working email and a few business data. Be careful though. You can only have one Google Keyword Planner account per website. In that regard, you won’t be able to share it with your team (unless, of course, you share your account information).

It’s really easy to use Google Keyword Planner.

All you have to do is type in a keyword and you will get all the necessary data regarding volume and keyword difficulty. Additionally, this tool has enormous number of filters allowing you to change country of origin, search engine, language, suggested bids etc.

Great starting point for anybody interested in determining keyword difficulty.


Sooner than later, you will probably have to invest in some tools. If you are indecisive when it comes to your first product, SEMRush is an excellent initial investment.

First of all, this software will solve most of your long-term website issues. It is a great way to research keyword opportunities, to check your links, to get more data about potential advertising opportunities and so forth.

Within this program, keyword difficulty is represented by percentages, ranging from 0 to 100, where keywords with high percentages are hard to rank for. It also gives you some other relevant data such as volume, results and trend.

Trend bar is especially important. As I previously emphasized, this stat shows you whether the keyword volume will grow or diminish in future. Even though our main concern in this article is keyword difficulty, we cannot neglect search volume.

Together, all this data will allow you to properly analyze a keyword having all the relevant factors right in front of you. This is precisely the reason which may persuade you to give advantage to this tool instead of some other.

Moz Keyword Explorer

Moz is one of the biggest organizations within SEO industry. Whenever you search for some internet marketing or search engine optimization topic, you can bet that Moz’s article will be among top 3 ranking. Due to this fact, it is not surprising that Moz has some of the most popular keyword difficulty tools.

Moz Keyword Explorer is part of paid Moz Pro subscription.

It gives us four basic data:

  1. Volume (shows the amount of traffic that comes from a keyword)
  2. Difficulty (shows how hard it is to rank for it)
  3. Opportunity (shows click through rate of first ten results)
  4. Potential (shows general potential of the word)

Similarly to SEMRush, results are presented on a scale from 0 to 100 where 0 is non-existent and 100 is perfect. Best thing about this tool is Potential metric. Unlike other keyword difficulty tools, Moz Explorer compiles all the other metrics and presents them in a form of a combined stat. This way, even if you have some doubts regarding individual metrics, you can always check Potential metric which can give you a good estimation what you can expect from a keyword.

Moz Keyword Explorer also gives you some additional data such as keyword suggestions (related words), SERP analysis (analysis of top 10 results for that keyword) and mentions (all articles where keyword was mentioned).

This tool has 30 days free trial. So, if you are interested in trying it, you can do it without paying anything.


It is hard to mention keyword research without mentioning Ahrefs. This keyword difficulty tool remains one of the best tools on the market doing wonders for your research process. Ahrefs is specific as it has its own system for measuring difficulty. It is conveniently called keyword difficulty score.

Basically, this keyword score is what makes the tool so great. Unlike some other tools, where you have tons of data, with Ahrefs you can instantly determine which keyword is the best.

The KD scale goes from 0 to 100 where 0 KD keyword is very easy to rank for while 100 is the hardest keyword to rank for. Score is based solely on links that are pointing to a page. Best thing about it is that is accounts both for quantity and quality of links. In other words, you do not have to perform complex calculations yourself.

Furthermore, you are able to expand the list and get detailed difficulty analysis for top results in Google. You can see how many links, shares and referring domains there are for every piece.


CanIRank is a really good tool but is often overshadowed by other software on the list. Its uniqueness lies in keyword ROI. Not only are you able to determine difficulty of a particular keyword, but you are also able to establish how profitable it would be to pursue it. CanIRank pulls data from both SEMRush and Moz.

Another thing worth mentioning is that this tool provides a lot of assistance. It is really friendly for beginners and it can give you some interesting keyword suggestions.  Lastly, it is rather simplistic and easy to use making it a top pick for people without keyword research experience.


Determining keyword difficulty is one of the most important aspects of keyword research. Some may say that it is only a part of the bigger picture. However, it is a metric that is more important than any other keyword research stat.

Why is that you might ask?

If you are unable to rank for a keyword, there is almost no point in creating content in the first place. In practice, it is much better to be position 1 for a keyword that brings 100 visitors per month than to be position 100 for a keyword that brings 100,000 visitors per month.

In the world of SEO, the only positions that matter are the ones on the first page. Everything else is insignificant and not worthy your time.

That being said, be very careful when analyzing keywords in future. Even though most of us tend to be lured by enormous volumes that some keywords bring, that volumes are insignificant if they are not returning any profit to your company.

How often do you perform keyword research? Do you do it before every article? Leave your thoughts in the comment section bellow.

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