One of the obvious questions when doing keyword research is how difficult it's going to be to rank on the SERPs and start earning organic traffic.
But one of the most commonly made keyword research mistakes is focusing only on search volume as a method of prioritizing efforts. If you don't focus on other keywords, you'll find disappointing results and unhappy stakeholders.
Yet all of your competitors want to chase these terms, too. Higher monthly search volume typically means an increased level of competition, in turn meaning it is harder to rank organically for these keywords.
So, what's the solution?
A smart strategy uses keyword difficulty alongside search volume to build a strategy that balances opportunity and the ease of ranking, and in this guide, we're going to help you to understand how to measure keyword difficulty and understand your site's potential to rank for a keyword.
Specifically, we're going to take a look at:
What Is Keyword Difficulty in SEO?
Keyword difficulty, sometimes also known as ranking difficulty, is a measure of how hard it's going to be to rank for a keyword on the SERPs.
Knowing this can help to set expectations around the resources that are involved and the likelihood that your site can rank for the keyword any time soon.
One way to analyze this is by using the Semrush Keyword Difficulty Score. We'll break down what this is below.
But relying on a score on its own is dangerous. In order for these insights to be useful, you need to understand the different factors that contribute to a web page ranking on the SERPs and the tactics you need to use. Don't forget, keyword difficulty takes into account those pages that are already ranking, and it's not as simple as launching a page and waiting for it to rank.
Understanding What Contributes to a Keyword's Ranking Difficulty
For a moment, let's look at keyword difficulty as a measure of how realistic it's going to be for you to rank a new webpage.
There are a few factors that come into play here, including:
- The quality of the content
- The quality of the backlinks that point to the page
- The authority of the domain
These factors don't even consider the importance of ensuring that your site doesn't face any technical SEO issues (if these exist, they can prevent your site from ranking and should be fixed as soon as possible).
Let's dive deeper into these factors.
You're not going to rank without creating quality content. It's as simple as that. Google's mission is to “deliver the most relevant and reliable information available,” and this in itself dictates the need to produce the best content that's out there on the web.
If you want to rank for a keyword, you need to make sure your content is at least as good as what's already out there. However, to rank, you must go beyond what's already ranking and figure out how you can add value above and beyond what currently is on the SERPs.
To compete on the SERPs, you need to invest in quality content.
You need to consider the quality of backlinks pointing to the pages that already rank on the SERPs and map out a link building strategy to earn links that build your authority.
As with content, to compete on the SERPs, it's important that you're earning quality links in order to rank.
Authority of the Domain
The reality is that a new domain is going to struggle to rank for competitive keywords at first.
It takes time to build up the authority that's needed to rank, and it's one reason why SEO is a channel that can take six to twelve months or more to really show an ROI.
You need to earn the right to rank. One way you can measure this authority is using the Semrush Authority Score, a compound metric used for measuring a domain's or webpage's overall quality.
While many factors go into building a domain's authority, you can use this as a measure when determining keyword difficulty.
Take a look at how your domain stacks up against those who rank at the top of the SERPs. If their Authority Score is way ahead of yours, there's a good chance you'll struggle to rank until you've improved your standing.
What typically increases a domain's authority? You guessed it... great content and great links!
Introducing the Semrush Keyword Difficulty Score
While there are multiple factors that go into the difficulty of ranking for a keyword, it's useful to have a metric score that you can easily work into your keyword research process.
Here's where you'll find it in the Keyword Overview:
Here's where you'll find it in the Keyword Magic Tool (see the KD% column):
Let's take a look at what this score is.
The keyword difficulty score is a percentage from 0 to 100, and the higher the percentage, the more difficult Semrush predicts it would be to rank for. To calculate keyword difficulty, Semrush takes into consideration the authority of the domains that are showing up on the results page and then estimates how hard it would be for a new website to outrank its current competitors on the SERP.
These can be grouped in the following way:
- 0-14 = Very easy. These are the best opportunities to start ranking new webpages on Google as soon as possible.
- 15-29 = Easy. These keywords have some competition but are still possible to rank for when you’re starting out. To be able to rank for these, you’ll need quality content focused on the keyword’s intent.
- 30-49 = Possible. Slightly more competition. You’ll need well-structured and unique content appropriately optimized for your keywords.
- 50-69 = Difficult. You’ll need to have some referring domains in addition to your well-structured, helpful and optimized content in order to compete here.
- 70-84 = Hard. Even stiffer competition. These keywords will demand more effort in terms of getting referring domains in order to rank your well-optimized and helpful content among the top pages.
- 85-100 = Very hard. The absolute hardest keywords to compete for, especially for a new website. These will demand a lot of SEO and content promotion efforts to eventually rank and acquire traffic.
When doing keyword research, this score can help you to understand how difficult it's going to be to rank for a keyword.
Keyword Difficulty vs. Keyword Competition
One thing that's important to explain is Google's keyword competition measure in Keyword Planner.
Every keyword within the tool is assigned a score of high, medium, or low. But this has nothing to do with SEO; it's a score of how competitive the keyword is from an advertising (Google Ads) perspective.
In Google's words: “Competition shows how competitive an ad placement is for a keyword, specific to the location and Search Network targeting options that you've selected. The level of competition—low, medium, or high — is determined by the number of advertisers bidding on each keyword relative to all keywords across Google. If we don't have enough data, you'll see a dash (-).”
Don't use this as a measure of how difficult it will be to rank for a keyword; that's not what it shows.
How To Check Keyword Difficulty
The quickest way to check a keyword's difficulty is using the Semrush Keyword Difficulty score that we introduced above. To find this for any keyword is really simple.
Head to the Keyword Overview Tool and enter the keyword that you want to check the difficulty score for. You can enter up to 100 keywords at once.
You'll see the Keyword Difficulty score alongside other metrics for the keyword.
If you've entered multiple keywords, you'll see a KD% column on the 'bulk analysis' tab, showing the score for each one.
Lastly, if you want to use Keyword Difficulty when looking for new keywords to target, you'll see the score included as a column (KD%) in the Keyword Magic Tool.
It's really easy to integrate the Keyword Difficulty Score into your keyword research process and workflow. Be sure to consider your ability to compete, remembering that this score doesn't take into account your own domain's authority.
Always consider keyword difficulty in the context of your own domain: your content, backlink profile, and overall authority. Authority Score simply indicates the overall difficulty of ranking for it, assuming you have a solid SEO strategy in place.
What Is a Good Keyword Difficulty Score?
The question you're probably asking is what makes a good keyword difficulty score?
Unfortunately, there is no easy answer. Ultimately, a more authoritative domain has the potential to rank for keywords that have a higher Keyword Difficulty score.
So, then, how do you go about choosing keywords based on their difficulty?
- Understand that SEO is a long-term game. It's important that your overall strategy doesn't lose sight of where you want to be in 12 or 24 months' time, and you certainly don't want to be ignoring difficult to rank for keywords. You just need to accept that it's going to take time to rank for these keywords and continue to analyze your own authority against the sites and webpages that currently rank and occupy Google's first page. Don't see a high Keyword Difficulty Score as a bad thing, it just means you're likely going to need to invest more resources to rank for it than one that scores lower.
- Smart strategies balance easy-to-rank-for keywords with difficult ones. We get that you need to start showing progress, so it makes sense to balance lower difficulty keywords with those that are going to take time to earn visibility. Building out topic clusters is a great way to do this, targeting broader terms that have a higher Keyword Difficulty Score with your pillar pages and lower scores with your cluster content.
Don't make the mistake of basing your keyword research on search volume alone.
When you do this, you'll struggle to estimate the resources needed (or the time it's going to take) to earn visibility for the keywords you're targeting and, perhaps just as importantly, you'll find it difficult to set expectations around this.
Take the time to understand how feasible it is to rank for a keyword over the coming months, find quick win opportunities (lower difficulty, higher-value keywords), and get buy-in for your strategy based on solid but realistic projections.