What is keyword difficulty and why should you care?
Marketing Intelligence

What Is Keyword Difficulty and Why Should You Care?

by Dror Karpfen , SEO Specialist 9 Min.
April 27, 2022 | Updated July 31, 2022

SEOs talk about keyword difficulty like bakers talk about flour. But does every digital marketer understand the meaning, or are they just afraid to ask?

Grasping the concept of keyword difficulty requires an understanding of Google’s ranking factors. And even if you get it, there are still critical considerations to learn for your strategic SEO decisions.

In this post, you’ll learn everything you need to know to get started with keyword difficulty. We’ll explain what the keyword difficulty score tells you and how to use it effectively. You’ll also get practical tips and guidance on gauging keyword difficulty and implementing it in your digital marketing strategy. Let’s dive in!

What is keyword difficulty?

To be precise, keyword difficulty should be called keyword ranking difficulty. The metric measures how difficult it is to climb the ranking ladder on Google when targeting a specific keyword. Some people also call it SEO difficulty.

Whatever you call it, the benefits are clear: attaining the difficulty level allows you to estimate the effort it takes to get to a good ranking on a SERP (search engine results page). This lets you refine your keyword strategy and plan time and resources more accurately.

Different SEO and keyword tools apply different methodologies of gauging keyword difficulty, or KD. Some display a percentage, and others, a numeric figure. Essentially, the quantity and quality of backlinks to the top ranking sites for the keyword is the primary factor in all tools.

Keyword competition – the tiny difference

Google scores each keyword on a difficulty scale from 1 to 100, relevant for organic search. Google also provides a keyword competition metric, and the two are often mentioned in one breath. Keyword competition evaluates the bidding competition for a specific keyword, and you’ll consider it for paid search campaigns.

Here’s what you need to know for your keyword research:

Keyword difficulty refers to organic search; keyword competition refers to paid search.

Illustration of keyword difficulty vs. keyword competition.

Before we go deeper into how keyword difficulty is calculated and how you can put it to good use, let’s first understand why it matters.

Why should you care about keyword difficulty?

To make it to search engines’ top ranks, you need to gauge the competition’s capabilities, the market trends, and the audience’s interests. That’s why you do keyword research in the first place. The keyword difficulty metric considers competition and audience preferences to inform how hard it is to achieve that goal. It helps you assess your chances and evaluate how much effort you’ll have to put in to reach your desired SEO rank.

Google search results page for "hot air balloon" with snippet.

A keyword with a low difficulty score is easy to get a high ranking for. You don’t have to invest a lot of resources and can expect results relatively fast. When you target a keyword with increased difficulty, you need to plan for higher specificity in your targeting, more content pieces, and links – in other words, a lot more work and time.

That’s it in a nutshell. Now on to the juicy part.

How do you gauge keyword difficulty?

There are a variety of tools that offer a keyword difficulty measure. Each is unique, even though scoring is always based on Google’s ranking factors. The two main ranking factors for Google are content relevance and backlinks.

Keyword difficulty scores calculate the number of quality links to top-ranking pages.

As an example, if you were to investigate the keyword “hot air balloons”, the algorithm would look at the top-ranking pages for “hot air balloons” and count the number of backlinks on these pages. That, of course, isn’t the only criterion.

So let’s look at what else goes into the calculation:

Backlink quality

Google wants to provide searchers with high-quality content and aims to rank accordingly. Part of the considerations are authenticity, accuracy, and reliability of the websites and pages that link to the site.

Respectable sites won’t link to questionable or shady web pages. For example, a university site has links to research institutes and libraries. These contain factual, trustworthy information. Links to these types of sites result in a strong link profile.

Link profiles are one of Google’s ways to evaluate the quality of a website or webpage by analyzing the type of content a website is linked to..

Understandably, a high link profile is difficult to achieve. That’s where keyword difficulty comes in. If the high-ranking pages for your targeted keyword have a strong link profile, the keyword is harder to rank for.

To get linked to such pages, you first need to prove your worthiness and demonstrate authority in the field. This brings us to the next factor: domain authority and page authority.

Domain authority

Domain authority has to do with content quality but also considers relevance. A website that frequently posts highly informative and relevant expert content on hot air balloons is viewed as an authority on the subject. This webpage has high domain authority.

Now imagine the same site suddenly starting to post articles on, let’s say, nail polish. It will appear very suspicious to the reader and to Google because nail polish has nothing to do with hot air balloons, the site’s field of expertise. Alternately, a link from a nail polish seller to the hot air balloon site would be irrelevant and could harm the link profile and the domain authority.

Building domain authority takes time and effort. Until your site can provide enough quality content for the industry or a topic, domain authority remains low.

Content quality

Content quality is a precondition for domain authority and enables a strong link profile. Then why consider content quality separately? Glad you asked.

Let’s hypothetically assume the keyword is a completely new type of product concept. There isn’t a single site with authority yet. Naturally, there aren’t any quality backlinks either. The only quality indicator is the content itself, and the pages with the highest quality content rank highest.

Now let’s look at this from a keyword difficulty perspective. If none of the sites provide high-grade content, it’s easier to rank high for the keyword. All you need is to deliver excellent on-topic content. This explains why the quality of content is a factor in calculating keyword difficulty.

So, if you’re a new site and have neither backlinks nor domain authority, your only chance to achieve a decent rank is accurate, insightful, and keyword-relevant content. In this case, the quality of the content is critical.

Search intent

Notice we said keyword-relevant? Content needs to be super relevant to the targeted keyword, and it needs to resonate with the search intent.

Google identifies four types of search intents:

  • Informational – seeking information
  • Commercial – wanting to buy, rent, or sell a product or service
  • Transactional – intending to make a specific purchase
  • Navigational – looking for a specific site on the web

Illustration of the four search intents.

For our sample keyword, “hot air balloons”, the desire of most searchers would be a ride in one of them while on holiday or to celebrate an occasion. This falls under transactional. Not many people study balloon history (informational), compare prices all over the world (commercial), or try to locate a specific balloon brand’s website (navigational).

The search intent of the high-ranking sites impacts the keyword difficulty score. Keep in mind that search intent isn’t a black-and-white movie. There’s a lot of grey space and Google often shows results for mixed search intents, which adds difficulty.

How do you check keyword difficulty?

All solemn SEO tools provide KD scores. Some show a numerical score, while others prefer a percentage. You can usually find the range segmented into three to six or more groups, depending on the tool you choose.

Here’s a curious fact about the various KD scores: According to Backlinko, the scores are “all over the place”, meaning the same keyword reaches an entirely different difficulty level on each tool. How is this possible when they all evaluate according to similar criteria?

One thing to keep in mind is that they don’t all analyze the same data. Each platform has its own methods and sources for data collection, which the calculation depends on. If the data is incomplete or inaccurate, the score becomes unreliable. The accuracy of the keyword difficulty measure depends on the accuracy of the data it relies on. Make sense?

Similarweb is known for the quality of its data collected from multiple, reliable sources. We show the keyword difficulty score as a numeric value ranging from 1 to 100.

  • Keywords scoring between 1 and 20 are considered easy.
  • keywords scoring between 21 and 80 are considered moderate.
  • Keywords scoring between 81 and 100 are considered difficult.

You can find the metric added in various keyword research tools on the platform, such as the keyword generator, keyword gap, and keyword overview, and in the competitive analysis section under search.

Screenshot of keyword overview with keyword difficulty score.

To get in-depth information and practical tips on how to use the keyword difficulty score in an advanced way on Similarweb, hop over to the post 5 Hacks to Make The Most of Keyword Difficulty. For current benchmarks grab the Complete Guide to Keyword Difficulty. Stay here if you want the basics. 

Grab the Complete Guide to Keyword Difficulty

Get current accurate industry benchmarks and learn how to find keyword difficulty with Similarweb Digital Intelligence platform.

What is a good keyword difficulty?

There is no such thing as a good keyword difficulty. To make use of the score, you first need to understand what it tells you. You already understand the considerations that lead to the score; now, let’s see what it means for your SEO and marketing efforts.

In general, you shouldn’t limit your keyword efforts to any specific level of ranking difficulty. The best strategy is a mixed bag of keywords with various difficulty ranges.

When do you target low-difficulty keywords?

If you’re just starting out and your site has no domain authority, little content, and few backlinks, you’re better off targeting low-difficulty keywords. At this stage, it’s crucial to drive traffic fast and get eyes on your content. With low-difficulty keywords, you run a better chance of ranking on the first page of search engines and generating traffic to your website.

But don’t limit yourself to these search terms. The point is to create audience-relevant content and get the ball rolling. While this low-difficulty website traffic is coming in, you can channel some of your efforts into creating content that targets keywords that are more difficult to rank for.

Screenshot of keywords for holiday bookings with keyword difficulty score.

Pro Tip: Identify long-tail keywords related to your main keyword if this has a high difficulty score and high search volume. By targeting several long-tail keywords, you run a better chance of getting traffic than from one viral, short-tail keyword.

In addition, long-tail keywords allow you to be more specific in your targeting. With this tactic, you can target your most valuable audience and generate quality traffic.

Always make sure there’s traffic volume for the keywords you target. If no one is searching for the term, ranking won’t help bring visitors.

When do you target high-difficulty keywords?

It’s a good idea to always have a few high-difficulty keywords up your SEO strategy sleeve. Remember, it takes time to get to the top ranks on the SERP. Create excellent evergreen content that isn’t time-sensitive or related to current events, but remains relevant over time. Link your other content to the page, and keep optimizing and updating the content to gradually build authority.

Sites with strong domain authority and link profiles that already have quality content can be more focused on these keywords to really boost their organic traffic. Getting to the top of the SERP and holding that spot requires intensive keyword research and content optimization efforts. You need to have the staff, the expertise, and use capable tools.

When do you use medium-difficulty keywords?

Screenshot of keyword generator with results for “hot air balloon”.

The thing to remember about the medium range is to ensure top-quality content that’s hyper-focused on the search intent and well-linked. For example, incorporate statistics or research from officially recognized sites and link to the source.

The more effective and accurate your keyword research, the higher your chances of succeeding to rank for these terms. When you understand exactly what your audience is looking for and how they search, these keywords can be incredibly valuable.

Top takeaways

What did you learn about keyword difficulty scores?

  • Keyword difficulty is critical in combination with search volume.
  • The best keywords are usually the hardest to rank for.
  • Your keyword strategy should include all difficulty levels.
  • Keyword difficulty helps you identify long-tail keywords with high potential.

Illustration of key takeaways.

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If you put these insights to work, you’ll be a lot more confident in planning out your SEO strategy and making it successful.

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What does the keyword difficulty score tell you?

Keyword difficulty helps you estimate the amount of effort it would take to rank higher on Google for a particular keyword or keyword group.

How is keyword difficulty calculated?

Keyword difficulty calculation is based on traffic and engagement metrics, and the quantity and quality of referring domains that lead to the top results for a specific keyword.

What is a good keyword difficulty?

There’s no one good keyword difficulty that can fit all. It depends on your resources, strategy, business needs, and on the industry and its competitive landscape. In your keyword strategy, you should eventually incorporate various levels of keyword difficulties.

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