What is Keyword Difficulty? (And Does it Still Matter?)
- By Dominique Jackson
- January 31, 2019
If you’ve used any type of keyword research tool before, you’re likely familiar with a metric called keyword difficulty.
Every tool from SEMrush to Ahrefs, Long Tail Pro and others include this metric to help you gauge your chances of ranking for your target keywords. But what does this score really mean? Is it reliable? Should you really use it to determine what keywords to go after?
We’ll dive into all of that and more. In this post, we’re going to tell you everything you need to know about keyword difficulty, and whether or not it’s a useful SEO metric.
What is Keyword Difficulty?
Keyword difficulty is a metric that measures how easy (or difficult) a keyword would be to rank for in search engines. The difficulty is typically measured as a score between 1-100, where the lower the score, the easier it’ll be for a website to rank at the top of the search engine results for the target keyword.
Pretty simple right?
Most marketers accept that definition, but don’t think to look further into exactly what determines that score. However, it’s crucial to have some context around how keyword difficulty is calculated, so you’re not just blindly going after keywords because a tool says it should be “easy” to rank for.
How is Keyword Difficulty Calculated?
Ok, so now that you have a general idea of what keyword difficulty is, the next question is how is it calculated?
Unfortunately, the answer isn’t clear-cut, because it can vary depending on what tool you’re using. Two SEO tools might give you a different keyword difficulty score for the exact same keyword.
Here’s an example of the keyword difficulty for the keyword “sheepskin rug” on two different tools.
As you can see, the scores are drastically different. One shows that it’d be fairly easy to rank for the term, while the other shows a medium keyword difficulty score.
A part of the reason behind why these scores are so far apart has to do with the way the tools calculate it. The score from tool #1 comes from Ahrefs. According to their website, here’s how their keyword difficulty score is calculated:
“It's calculated by taking a weighted average of the number of linking domains to the current top-ranking pages. The result is then plotted on a logarithmic scale from 0 to 100 (low difficulty to high).”
Their keyword difficulty score is strictly based on backlinks.
Tool #2 is Ubersuggest. Unfortunately, they don’t give any insights into how they actually calculate their score.
From what we’ve seen, most tools measure keyword difficulty based on a combination of these factors:
- Backlinks (quality and quantity)
- On-page SEO of the ranking pages (does the target keyword appear in the title, URL, throughout the page, etc.)
- Search volume
- Page authority/domain authority of ranking sites
- Trustflow and citation flow of ranking sites
The metrics/factors each tool uses are also weighted differently. So even if two tools use the exact same metrics, if one gives more value to citation flow than another, the scores can still be different.
All of this is why it’s important not to just trust keyword difficulty scores at face value. Look at how the tools you use calculate the score and decide if it makes sense.
Is SEO Keyword Difficulty Reliable?
Since we’ve established each tool has its own way of measuring keyword difficulty, the next logical question is can you even trust the numbers?
We recommend using keyword difficulty as a directional metric, rather than the decision maker of whether or not you’ll be able to rank for a keyword.
For instance, if a keyword research tool shows your keyword has a medium or hard difficulty score, it doesn’t necessarily mean you won’t be able to rank for it. Just make a note that it might take you a little longer, but it won’t be impossible.
You should also test different tools. Once you find one that seems fairly accurate for you (based on your results), try to stick with it.
Also keep in mind that there are so many different variables that go into determining the SEO difficulty of a keyword, including Google’s algorithm itself. Things are always changing, and as a result, it’s probably not the best idea to rely on static metrics to build your keyword strategy.
The Big Problem With SEO Keyword Difficulty Tools
There’s one glaring issue with many tools that provide keyword difficulty scores. Most of them don’t take into account your website. They just give you a general score based on all the other sites that currently rank for the target keyword.
Here’s the problem.
Let’s say you’re looking up the keyword “brain foods”.
According to Ubersuggest, it has a medium SEO difficulty, meaning it’s possible to rank for, but it’ll likely take some time.
However, what if the website trying to rank is fda.gov? You’d probably have a much easier time reaching the top of the search results than a brand new food blog with no authority or few backlinks.
So the “difficulty” metric in that instance could be pretty misleading. For the brand new food blog, the SEO difficulty should probably show as “hard”, particularly when you look at the current sites ranking on page one.
We’re not saying that keyword difficulty is useless though. You just have to know how to use it wisely, and understand that the number by itself doesn’t give you the full picture of how difficult it’ll be to rank for a keyword.
How to Use Keyword Difficulty Scores (The Right Way)
Instead of judging the competitiveness of a keyword solely based on a number from a tool, we highly suggest putting in a little bit of manual research as well. For instance, if a tool tells you a keyword will be easy to rank for, look through the top ranking pages yourself.
What sites are ranking? In the example from earlier with brain foods, we can see that two heavy hitters occupy the top three spots, plus there’s a “Popular on the web” section in position 0. That’ll give you a more realistic idea of how competitive the keyword is.
From there, you’d need to take a look at your own website. Does Google tend to rank your site highly for these types of keywords? Does your site have decent domain authority?
Additionally, click on some of the top results. Is the content thorough? Is it optimized? Does the page have a good backlink profile?
As you answer these questions, you’ll start to get a much better idea of whether or not it’s worth going after a keyword, beyond what a score tells you. Now you have context on the competition and can make a more informed decision on whether or not it’s worth going after a keyword.
What About Paid Keyword Difficulty?
All the info we’ve covered so far has been based on organic keyword difficulty. But what if you want to know how difficult it’ll be to get results running Google Ads?
Unlike organic results, metrics like domain authority and backlinks aren’t a factor for Google Ads. That’s both a pro and a con.
The bright side is it allows newer websites to get traffic from Google, even if they’re competing against larger more established brands. The downside is it usually allows companies with larger budgets to simply outbid smaller sites so they show up less often.
One way to get a little bit of a competitive edge though is to check the paid keyword competition for your target keywords and put your budget towards the less competitive phrases. You can do find these keywords in Wincher.
On the dashboard, go to the “Keyword research” tab. We’ll crawl your website to find up to 1,000 keywords your website shows up for in Google organically. For each term, we’ll show you how much competition there is on Google Ads, as well as the average cost-per-click (CPC).
You can use the filters to limit your results to the keywords with the lowest competition. Or even sort the results by keywords with the lowest CPC. This is a quick way to uncover keywords you can start bidding for on Google Ads to get some easy wins until you’re able to start ranking organically.
As we mentioned, Google Ads can get expensive if you’re bidding on the wrong keywords (i.e. ones with high competition). By using Wincher’s keyword research tool, you can save those advertising dollars and just target the the keywords with the lowest competition/difficulty.
Does Keyword Difficulty Still Matter?
Anything you can do to get an edge up with SEO is helpful. So keyword difficulty can still be useful.
While there’s no clear-cut best tool to use for determining keyword difficulty, the metric can give you a starting point during your keyword research process. As long as you test the effectiveness/reliability of the tools you use, and combine their data with your own manual research, you can uncover some great keywords that’ll yield quick SEO wins.