Why Keyword Difficulty Matters (& How To Measure It For Free)

Andi Coombs
Andi Coombs
Senior Content Writer

What’s the most common mistake beginner SEO specialists make?

Next to obsessing over algorithms instead of people, it’s pursuing keywords that are too difficult to rank for organically. 

We call it wrongful pursuit

That’s right: for a combination of reasons, there are certain keywords that you’ll want to pursue that prove too difficult to conquer. But you’ll still pursue them anyways (gasp). 

Good news: with a little preparatory research, you can easily assess a keyword's difficulty before you attempt to rank for it, and save precious time and money in the process. 

In this article, we’ll explore real keyword difficulty. Not just the difficulty score your average SEO tool produces (though we’ll cover that too); but the not-so-obvious factors that contribute to keyword difficulty, and how to identify them. 

When you’re finished, wrongful pursuit will be a thing of the past. 

What is keyword difficulty?

Keyword difficulty is a score or percent (between 0-100) used by SEO tools to predict how difficult it will be to rank a certain keyword at the top of organic search results. It's a critical step in the keyword research process.

The higher the score, the harder to rank. 

The lower the score, the easier to rank. 

For example, Ahrefs gives the keyword “search engine optimization” a 95/100 (super hard), and the keyword “barnacle SEO” a 19/100 (medium). 

keyword difficulty ahrefs search engine optimization
“Barnacle SEO” (left) vs. “Search engine optimization” (right)

No surprise. Barnacle SEO is a long-tail keyword with low search volume (150 monthly searches) and low competition; search engine optimization is a head keyword with high search volume (99K monthly searches) and tons of competition. 

Why is keyword difficulty important?

Simple: the last thing you want to do is pursue keywords you have no chance of ranking for organically. But it happens all the time. 

The first rule of any strategy (especially an SEO strategy) is to devise a plan capable of winning given the resources available. 

Keyword difficulty predicts how many resources you’ll need if you expect to rank on page one. That way you can determine whether or not it’s worth your investment before you get started. 

How is keyword difficulty measured?

Keyword difficulty is predicted based on several factors, including quantity and quality of backlinks, content quality, domain authority, and page authority. 

Consequently, no two keyword tools predict keyword difficulty the exact same way. 

For example, Moz, Ahrefs, KWFinder (Mangools), Ubersuggest, SEMRush, and Wordtracker all produce different keyword difficulty scores for “content marketing.” 

keyword difficulty varies by tools
Keyword difficulty varies by tool

However, since the quantity and quality of backlinks influence search rankings more than any other factor, most tools only use referring domains (backlink profile) to predict keyword difficulty. The more referring domains on the first page of Google, the higher the keyword difficulty. 

So whichever tool you use, know that keyword difficulty is mostly linked to backlink difficulty. 

Keyword difficulty vs. keyword competitiveness 

Beware: keyword difficulty is not the same as Google’s “competition” rating inside Keyword Planner

Keyword difficulty refers to organic rankings, whereas keyword competitiveness refers to pay-per-click (PPC) bidding competition. The higher the competition, the more people who are bidding on a target keyword. 

For example, Google rates “content marketing” competition as “low.” That doesn’t mean it’s easy to rank organically. It means fewer people are currently bidding on the keyword with paid ads. Big difference. 

keyword difficulty google keyword planner
Keyword competitiveness in Google’s Keyword Planner

Tools to determine keyword difficulty

The good news: most freemium keyword research tools make keyword difficulty available for free.

And you really only need one (we prefer Ahrefs). But here are our top five suggestions: 

  1. Ahrefs Keyword Explorer (Free) 
  2. SEMRush Keyword Magic (Free) 
  3. Moz’s Keyword Explorer (Free)
  4. Ubersuggest (Free) 
  5. Mangools Keyword Finder (Free) 

How accurate is keyword difficulty?

It depends. 

As a metric that predicts the number of backlinks needed to rank atop search results, it’s pretty accurate. Despite score variance between tools, they all do a great job of estimating the degree of backlink difficulty on a scale from easy to hard (or some variation of that scale). 

As for true difficulty: not so much. 

Though referring domains may influence rankings as much or more as any other factor, it’s still just one piece of the puzzle. 

Keyword difficulty doesn’t account for situational factors that contribute to difficulty: 

  • SERP features: Say Ahrefs provides a 44/100 difficulty score. Not bad, right? But what if the search engine results page (SERP) has a featured snippet that hoards all the traffic? Or what if the results produce a carousel or local pack that pushes the first organic ranking below the fold?
  • Personalized search: Queries like “personal injury lawyer” produce local organic results based on the searcher’s proximity. Local businesses will outrank national competition in many cases, despite fewer links or lower domain authority. 
  • Domain age: Domain age isn’t a ranking factor (i.e. not part of Google’s algorithm). But older domains typically have more content, more backlinks, and more topical authority. Hard to overcome for newer websites. 
  • Technical SEO issues: Ranking for any keyword will prove difficult if you have an underlying site structure or technical SEO issue. But KD won’t tell you that. 
  • Content difficulty: Some search results require tools (just search for “keyword tools”). Others require first-party research. Both are more difficult to produce than a standard blog. 
  • Resource restraints: What’s difficult for you may not be difficult for someone else, and vice versa. 
  • Search intent: Links aren’t always the dominating ranking factor. Sometimes identifying search intent and providing the exact answer someone expects is most important. But keyword tools don’t know this, so they often rate a difficult keyword as “easy” if it has fewer links. 

How to measure real keyword difficulty for free

Don’t abandon keyword difficulty entirely. It’s a useful proxy and a reliable shortcut when researching keywords. 

But given its shortcomings mentioned above, there’s a better (and free) way to predict actual keyword difficulty in a way no tool will ever do. 

Domain authority of page one results 

Domain authority (DA) is a metric developed by Moz that estimates a website’s search engine ranking score and predicts how likely a website is to rank in SERPs. 

From Moz: 

keyword difficulty domain authority moz
Domain authority from Moz - Source

While not a ranking factor, domain authority can size up the competition immediately. If DA 90 websites dominate page one, you’re unlikely to outrank them if you’re a DA 15. But not always. 

To find domain authority, download Moz’s chrome extension (easiest), or use their free domain authority checker tool to input URLs manually.

With their extension installed, you can scroll page one results and see DA directly within SERPs. 

keyword difficulty domain authority in mozbar
DA in Mozbar

DA isn’t everything. But results with high PA and DA tend to be hyper-competitive. 

Like we mentioned earlier, most keyword difficulty tools use backlinks as their sole metric when predicting difficulty. But not all of them are free. 

Using Mozbar again, take note of the total number of backlinks each page one result has acquired. 

keyword difficulty total links mozbar
Total links using Mozbar

Note: Free Mozbar doesn’t tell you the number of referring domains. It just tells you total links. This means it’s highly likely that more than one domain is linking to the website more than once. 

To drill down deeper into referring domains (total number of unique linking domains, not links), use Ubersuggest (free). 

keyword difficulty ubersuggest domains
Referring domains in Ubersuggest

In general, the more backlinks a web page has acquired, the more difficult it will be to outrank them. 

But quality trumps quantity most of the time. A page may have acquired dozens of links but from low DA websites. Or they may have acquired just a few from high DA websites. In most cases, the latter will outrank the former. 

To check the DA of linking domains for free, use Ubersuggest again. Just scroll down to the “Referring Domains by DA” section. 

keyword difficulty referring domains by domain authority from ubersuggest
Referring domains by DA from Ubersuggest

The more links a page has acquired on the right (DA 50+), the harder it will be to outrank. 

Content requirements and search intent 

Certain keywords require certain types of content or formats, some of which require more time, resources, and expertise than others. 

For example, the search term “keyword tools” produces mostly tools (surprise) on page one. That’s because Google has identified the intent of the search (i.e. what the searcher expects to find), and determined that a tool is what they’re looking for. 

keyword tools serp results
Page one results for “Keyword tools”

If you don’t have a tool to offer, you’re unlikely to rank high for this keyword. 

Another example: “On-Page SEO

Most page one results include long-form guides, like Backlinko’s (#1):

keyword difficulty backlinko guide
Backlinko’s On-Page Guide (Ranks #1 for “On-Page SEO”)

In this case, never mind the total number of links, are you prepared to produce a long-form guide with 40K+ words?

Bottom line: if you’re not prepared to satisfy the visitors’ and Google’s content expectations, no matter how deep, long, or thorough, you’re not going to rank high. And some content expectations are easier to satisfy than others 

Resource strengths and limitations  

Last, what are your resource restraints?

Budget

Be honest. Do you have the money on deck to produce a behemoth guide if that’s what page one calls for? 

SEO muscle

Do you have an internal link-building team? Or do you outsource it to an agency

Do you have access to subject-matter experts who can write? Or would you need to pay for them? If you’d have to pay, do you have the budget?

Do you have a creative team that can produce videos, create user-friendly guides, or turn data into easily digestible infographics? 

Timeframe

How quickly do you need to show results for your SEO? Can you afford to wait months (even years) for a single keyword to start driving organic traffic to your site? Or are you in need of immediate revenue?

Whatever your restraints (and no two businesses are created equal), account for them ahead of time. Limited restraints will make ranking more difficult. Unlimited restraints will make ranking easier.

What next?

The best keywords are the most rankable keywords. 

Start using keyword difficulty to influence your SEO strategy and to prioritize keywords with low difficulty. 

Don’t fear competitive keywords. But don’t blindly pursue them either. 

And look beyond your average keyword difficulty percent or score; dive deeper and manually analyze the SERPs to determine whether or not you have what it takes to outrank your competition. 

Good luck!

Chapter 5:
SEO Strategy

What You’ll Learn: The websites at the top of the SERP are there because they have a solid content strategy. Learn how to create an SEO strategy that works for you. 

Chapter 6:
SEO Tips

What You’ll Learn: You have a solid foundation. Now you’re ready to learn expert SEO tips to take your business to the next level.

Chapter 7:
SEO Tools

What You’ll Learn: Level up your content with SEO tools that improve every aspect of your content and website.

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