Keyword Difficulty (KD): Meaning & SEO Strategy Basics




Updated 6/6/2024

Keyword difficulty is a common metric in SEO tools, providing an idea of how hard it will be to rank for a keyword in search engines.

keyword difficulty featured image - key at the top of a mountain

What is Keyword Difficulty?

Keyword difficulty is a metric used by various SEO tools to estimate how challenging it would be to rank well in search engine results for a specific keyword or phrase.

There is no universal standard for measuring keyword difficulty, but different tools have their own methods for calculating the metric. These are often based on factors like search volume, domain authority, page authority, and other signals.

Different methods for different tools

While the concept of KD is consistent across tools—a higher KD indicates a more competitive keyword—the actual numeric values or scales can differ.

For instance, one tool might rate keyword difficulty from 0 to 100, while another might use a different scale or categorize difficulty as Low, Medium, or High.

Because of these discrepancies, it’s beneficial to:

  1. Familiarize yourself with how your chosen SEO tool calculates the metric.
  2. Use KD as one of many factors in keyword research rather than the sole determining factor.
  3. Consider cross-referencing KD values from multiple tools for a more comprehensive understanding.

Why is Keyword Difficulty Important?

Understanding keyword difficulty is crucial because it helps you gauge the feasibility of targeting specific keywords. By knowing which keywords are more competitive, you can make informed decisions about which terms to focus on to achieve better search visibility.

  • Setting Realistic Expectations: You can set more realistic goals by assessing KD. For example, if you have a newer website with a lower domain authority, it might be more strategic to target lower-difficulty keywords initially.
  • Efficient Use of Resources: Time and effort are always at a premium. By targeting keywords that align with your site’s current authority and potential, you can better allocate resources and expect a higher return on investment.
  • Guided Content Strategy: A thorough understanding of KD can guide your content strategy. Instead of creating content on topics that are unlikely to rank, you can focus on areas with a more probable chance of success.

How is Keyword Difficulty Calculated?

While there’s no universal formula for difficulty, most tools consider common factors when determining keyword difficulty:

  1. Search Volume: How often users search for the keyword. Typically, keywords with high search volume are more competitive.
  2. Domain Authority: The strength of the websites currently ranking for the keyword. For example, the New York Times might have a DA of 99, while your cousin’s forgotten Etsy project is at DA 01.
  3. Page Authority: How strong the page is, usually how many backlinks it has or how well it ranks. Different consideration. For example, a page can be on a strong domain, but how powerful that page is can differ and influence rankings.
  4. Backlink Profile: The number and quality of backlinks pointing to the ranking pages. Many factors to consider. Each tool approaches differently.
  5. Top Ranking Pages: The best performing pages are often the most powerful, so links from them and their relationships get factored in.

To know more, see the product pages for your keyword difficulty tool, which usually provide information on how they source and calculate their data.

Best Keyword Difficulty Tools

Several prominent tools provide useful difficulty metrics. We’ll break them down into two categories, dedicated SEO tools and browser extensions:

SEO Software Suites

These dedicated SEO solutions offer top-notch organic search data.

  1. Ahrefs: Known for its extensive backlink database, it offers a KD score based on the number of referring domains to the current top-ranking pages.
  2. Semrush: Provides a KD percentage based on competition, search volume, and the number of branded companies with strong positions.
  3. Moz: Uses a metric called “Keyword Difficulty Score” based on Page Authority and Domain Authority of the top-ranking results.

Browser Extensions

Install these on Chrome or whatever browser you use to get quick SEO insight.

  1. MozBar: Provides Page Authority, Domain Authority, and a snapshot of Keyword Difficulty.
  2. Keywords Everywhere: Displays keyword search volume, cost per click, and competition data.
  3. Ahrefs SEO Toolbar: Shows metrics in a toolbar (you can hide) and adds SEO data to SERPs for easy reference.

You may notice that Google Keyword Planner isn’t listed. This is because it’s primarily designed for paid search. However, you can consider CPC a difficulty metric.

Considering Difficulty in Research

Understanding and properly leveraging keyword difficulty is crucial when diving into keyword research. However, it shouldn’t be the only metric you rely on. Here’s a more in-depth look at how to effectively incorporate it into your process.

1. Start with Your Goals

Before even looking at difficulty, define what you hope to achieve with your content:

  • Awareness: If you aim to create brand awareness, you might opt for more competitive keywords to tap into larger search volumes.
  • Conversion: If you’re looking for conversions, such as sales or sign-ups, consider long-tail keywords. They might have lower search volume (and often, lower KD) but can bring highly-targeted traffic.

2. Understand Your Website’s Authority

Your website’s authority can significantly impact your ability to rank for keywords. Tools like Moz’s Domain Authority and Ahrefs’ Website Authority checkers can give you a sense of where your site stands.

  • Newer Websites: If you have a relatively new website or low domain authority, target lower-difficulty keywords initially. This approach helps you gain initial traction.
  • Established Websites: More authoritative sites can take on higher-difficulty keywords. However, ensure you’re not neglecting potential low-hanging fruit. Lower-difficulty keywords that can still drive valuable traffic.

3. Consider Search Intent

Look beyond difficulty to understand the searcher’s intent. Ask yourself:

  • What is the user looking for?
  • Does my content genuinely match that intent?

Sometimes, even if a keyword is hard to rank for, your content can still perform effectively if it matches and fulfills search intent.

4. Analyze Top-Ranking Pages

Before deciding on targeting a keyword, look at the top 10 results in the SERP:

  • Content Quality: Is the content comprehensive? Can you provide better, more valuable content?
  • Domain Authority: Are the top-ranking domains authoritative or newer sites?
  • Content Type: What kind of content is ranking? Blog posts, product pages, videos, or infographics? This can give you insight into what format Google believes is most relevant for that keyword.

5. Don’t Overlook Long-Tail Keywords

While these keywords often have lower search volumes and difficulty scores, long-tail keywords tend to be more specific and can drive targeted traffic.

They are also usually less competitive, providing an excellent entry point for newer websites or content.

6. Cross-reference with Other Metrics

Difficulty should be a guide, not a rule. Always consider other metrics like:

  • Search Volume: Is there enough interest in this keyword to justify targeting it?
  • Click-through Rate (CTR) Predictions: Tools like Ahrefs can predict CTR for organic search results. Even if a keyword is difficult, if it has a high predicted CTR, it might be worth the effort.
  • Cost Per Click (CPC): If a keyword has a high CPC in paid search, it often indicates that the keyword is valuable and maybe even converts well.

7. Consistently Review and Adapt

A keyword that’s highly competitive today might become less so in a few months. Regularly review your keyword strategy, keeping difficulty in mind, but also be open to adapting based on results and new data.

When incorporated correctly into keyword research, Keyword Difficulty can be a valuable metric to help shape your content and SEO strategy. While it provides insight into the competitiveness of a keyword, it should be paired with other metrics and insights for a holistic approach.

Bottom Line

Keyword Difficulty is a metric utilized by SEO tools to gauge the challenge of securing a high rank on search engine results for a specific keyword. By analyzing difficulty, you can set more achievable goals, efficiently utilize resources, and design effective strategies.

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