Keyword Difficulty in SEO: A Beginner's Guide

I’ll explain why keyword difficulty is an important SEO metric to use in your keyword research process, how it’s generally calculated, and how I use it in my planning process.

May 6, 2024
Written by
Nate Matherson
Reviewed by
Charles Purdy

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Keyword difficulty is a popular metric used in search engine optimization (SEO). It attempts to quantify how hard ranking a webpage high on search engine results pages (SERPs) will be.

It’s referred to by many different names, such as “SEO difficulty.”

Keyword difficulty is typically expressed as a number, from 0 to 100. The higher a given keyword’s difficulty score is, the harder it will be to rank well for that keyword. The lower the score is, the easier it will be to rank well.

When I’m conducting keyword research, keyword difficulty and search volume help me prioritize the keywords I’m going to target.

Keyword difficulty is often positively correlated with search volume, but it isn’t always. Long-tail keywords often have lower difficulty scores than head terms or broader keywords.

A keyword’s difficulty is also often correlated with the cost of bidding for that keyword on Google Ads.

Generally, the more valuable a keyword is, the more difficult it will be to rank for in organic search — and the more expensive it will be to bid on in a pay-per-click Google auction.

Keyword difficulty scores vary dramatically depending on the industry you’re looking at. For example, difficulty scores are often very high for keywords in a competitive space like consumer finance. Meanwhile, keyword difficulty scores are often quite low for keywords that companies in niche markets are targeting.

In this article, I’ll explain why keyword difficulty is an important metric to use in your keyword research process, how it’s generally calculated, and how I use it in my planning process.

Why Is Keyword Difficulty Important?

As content marketers and SEOs, we often operate in very resource-constrained environments. There’s only so much time in the day, only so much content we can create, and realistically, only so many keywords we can target.

Keyword difficulty is a metric that can help us figure out which keywords to focus on first. It’s also helpful for setting expectations in terms of how much work and time will be required to rank for a given keyword.

Keyword difficulty scores are not provided directly by Google or other search engines. Instead, many SEO tools calculate this metric using their unique data sources and logic. Most tools are consistent in the sense that scores will range from 0 to 100, with a higher score representing a more competitive keyword (more on this a bit later).

In my experience, keywords with difficulty scores above 65 are generally more competitive and will often require more time, content, and backlinks to rank for. Conversely, keywords with difficulty scores below 65 are usually more gettable, especially for new businesses or startups just getting started with SEO.

If you’re just getting started with SEO, it might make sense to focus on keywords with lower difficulty as a way to drive traffic faster.

Keywords with difficulty scores in the 20s or 30s would be considered very easy. If you’re in an emerging market, you might find that your keywords are generally on the easier side. However, the keyword difficulty scores will likely be much higher if you’re in an established market with high customer acquisition costs.

How Is Keyword Difficulty Calculated?

There are plenty of SEO tools on the market today. Popular tools include Ahrefs, Semrush, Moz, and Positional.

A screenshot from Positional’s Keyword Research toolset showing “Competition,” which is how we describe keyword difficulty.

Each tool calculates keyword difficulty in slightly different ways. And if you’re using multiple tools, don’t be surprised if you see different keyword difficulty scores between different tools.

Generally, all the toolsets have a similar logic for computing keyword difficulty scores. Here are a few of the factors that influence keyword difficulty:

  • Domain Authority: Domain authority is a popular metric created by SEO tools as a substitute for Google’s now-retired (publicly) PageRank metric. The higher the domain authority of the top-performing websites for a given keyword is, the higher the keyword difficulty will be.
  • Page Authority: Page authority is similar to domain authority, in that it tries to quantify the strength and quality of a page’s backlinks. Page authority is an authority metric for a given URL and not for the entire domain. The higher the page authority of the top-performing URLs is, the higher the keyword difficulty will be.
  • Quality of Backlinks: Both domain authority and page authority attempt to quantify the quality and number of backlinks that a given domain or URL has. Some SEO tools take it a step further and try to factor out spammy backlinks when calculating keyword difficulty.

Keyword difficulty may change over time for a given keyword. For example, if a keyword increases in popularity or search volume, more websites will likely target it, thus increasing its difficulty.

It is important to note that keyword difficulty is different from “Competition,” or the difficulty score that Google provides in the Google Keyword Planner. “Competition” in Google’s Keyword Planner refers to the competitiveness of the keyword in paid search results. While keyword difficulty and competition are often positively correlated, they are different metrics and should not be confused.

How I Use Keyword Difficulty

I’ll use keyword difficulty in a few different ways. It really depends on whether I’m building a new website from scratch or I’ve already got an established content and SEO channel that I’m looking to build off of.

For a Brand-New Website

I tend not to obsess over keyword difficulty when I’m just starting my keyword research process for a brand-new website.

Step 1: Build a Keyword List

When I’m mapping out a keyword strategy for a new website, my first step is to try to find all of the relevant keywords that I might want to target, including both head terms and longer-tail keywords. During this process, I’ll usually set lower limit thresholds on monthly search volume — for example, 100 searches per month. To build my keyword list, I’ll typically plug and play within a keyword research toolset and spy on my competitors to see which keywords they are ranking for.

Step 2: Cluster Keywords, Identify Primary Keywords

My next step is to group or cluster those keywords.

I typically use a SERP-based approach to keyword clustering. If, for example, two keywords have search results that are substantially the same, I’ll group them. Through this process, you can identify the primary keyword or the most searched variant of a keyword in a grouping of keywords.

Step 3: Prioritize Keywords Based on Difficulty

After I’ve identified the possible primary keywords that I’d like to focus on, my next step is to apply some filters to determine which keywords to focus on first, including a filter for keyword difficulty.

I tend to divide my keywords into two different buckets: easy and hard.

I'll put any keywords with a keyword difficulty score below 65 into the easy (gettable) bucket and any keywords with a keyword difficulty above 65 into the hard bucket.

Let’s say, for example, that I was planning to create 30 webpages targeting 30 unique primary keywords. I’d likely try to pick 20 primary keywords of low to moderate keyword difficulty. I’d also try to pick ten primary keywords with higher difficulty — keywords that I know it’s going to take longer to rank for but that, ultimately, I will want to rank for.

Prioritizing keywords with lower difficulty will likely mean driving traffic back to your website faster. This can be helpful for getting buy-in from the rest of the organization and give you talking points to show that your work is having an effect. (Of course, you still want these keywords to be relevant to your business and the customers that you’re trying to acquire.)

Nate, why the heck would I go for a few more difficult keywords out of the gate?

Webpages that target keywords with higher difficulty scores can be useful because they often serve head terms or broad keywords that will be important from a topical authority standpoint and from an internal linking perspective.

In the long term, my goal is for my website to be the definitive resource on a given topic. At Positional, for example, we might create a blog post targeting a very difficult and broad keyword like “SEO,” knowing that it’s going to take a while for us to rank for that keyword. However, filling out your editorial calendar with keywords like this can be helpful for showing Google that your website is a good source of information, and there will likely be many internal linking opportunities.

Nate, what if all of my keywords are very hard?

If you’re in a very competitive space — for example, in consumer finance or healthcare — you might find that your keywords tend to be more difficult. It might take longer to find lower-difficulty keywords, and/or you might need to target keywords with very low search volumes to start.

Just because the keywords are harder doesn’t mean that they’re impossible. They’ll just take more work, more content, and more backlinks, and it will take longer to rank.

Nate, should I divide search volume by keyword difficulty to get a ratio?

I’ve seen a lot of our customers do this. However, it isn’t something that I generally recommend or that I do in my keyword research process.

As mentioned, I like to use a simple filter (“easy” or “hard”) when prioritizing keywords — because often a keyword with a difficulty score of, let’s say, 40 isn’t actually that much harder than a keyword with a difficulty score of 20.

For Established Websites

If I’m working on an established website with a mature content marketing function, I’ll usually look at keyword difficulty slightly differently.

If you’re in this situation, your website likely already has some domain authority, and you have a sense of how well your webpages are ranking.

For example, if I see that our webpages are ranking very well for keywords with difficulty scores of 65 to 80, I’ll have some confidence that we can serve keywords with similar difficulty scores fairly quickly. Moreover, if we’re already ranking well for competitive terms, that signals to me that we should be able to rank even faster for lower competitive terms.

Unique Content Can Help You Cut Through the Difficulty

There have been many changes in SEO recently. Today, Google prioritizes helpful content and rewards publishers who surface uniquely useful information.

When I started my SEO career, this wasn’t necessarily the case, or at least it wasn’t something that we thought about a lot.

But these days, we spend a lot of time thinking about the additional value our webpages add to the internet. We try to bring our unique perspectives and experiences into our content.

With Positional’s website, I’ve seen that our most unique and helpful content pages tend to rank well for competitive keywords that — if we’re being honest — we have no business ranking for, at least on the basis of our website’s domain authority compared with our competitors’ domain authority.

For example, I wrote a unique guide to guest blogging, based on my experience writing hundreds of guest blogs. And it’s ranking well, despite this being a very competitive keyword with a keyword difficulty of 77 as of this writing:

This is a screenshot from Positional’s Keyword Research toolset; it shows the SERP results for the keyword “guest blogging” and the associated authority scores and page authority scores of the top-ranking webpages.

As seen above, our website’s authority score is very low — 21 as of this writing, compared with our competitors' authority scores, which are in the 60s, 70s, and 80s. Our page authority score, 3, is also extremely low.

But in this case, I believe that we can rank for a very difficult keyword with a very low-authority website and page because our page is unique and provides exceptional value.

TL;DR: If you truly create wonderful content, you can break through the noise, even on difficult keywords.

Final Thoughts

Keyword difficulty is one of many SEO metrics that we can consider.

It’s by no means a perfect metric, and different SEO tools may show you different scores.

When mapping a keyword strategy for a new website, I use keyword difficulty alongside search volume to shape my editorial calendar and determine which keywords to go for first.

That being said, don’t be too afraid to tackle more difficult keywords out of the gate or over time. These days, if you create exceptional and unique content, it is possible to power through keyword difficulty and rank for more competitive terms, as we’ve done with several keywords.

Nate Matherson
Co-founder & CEO of Positional

Nate Matherson is the Co-founder & CEO of Positional. An experienced entrepreneur and technologist, he has founded multiple venture-backed companies and is a two-time Y Combinator Alum. Throughout Nate's career, he has built and scaled content marketing channels to hundreds of thousands of visitors per month for companies in both B2C (ex financial products, insurance) as well as B2B SaaS. Nate is also an active angel investor with investments in 45+ companies.

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