What Is Keyword Difficulty? Making Sense of This SEO Metric

February 15, 2023
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Determining keyword difficulty is among the most challenging aspects of keyword research. Although some software lets you evaluate keyword difficulty, you cannot rely on it alone for your entire content strategy. There isn’t a single software on the market that tells you exactly when and why you should optimize for specific phrases. 

You still need to use your decision-making skills to judge the information you get from this software and the data you gather from your marketing efforts. Here is what you should know about keyword difficulty and how you can choose better phrases for your strategy.

Keyword Difficulty Defined

Also known as keyword competition, keyword difficulty appears in many optimization software and tools. It puts a numerical value to how challenging it will be to rank for a specific keyword. The higher the score, the more difficult it is to rank. This metric should help you determine if you need to produce content discussing a topic. Various tools let you measure keyword difficulty—here are some of the most popular and reliable ones today.

Google Keyword Planner

Besides helping pay-per-click advertising specialists, Google Keyword Planner can also help SEO writers and content strategists. It gives you keyword competition and search volume, and it gets the figures from the quality and quantity of PPC ad bids for specific keywords. 

The main disadvantage of using this tool is it uses PPC instead of SEO, so it might not have the most relevant data for content writing. Still, search volume and competition are valuable in determining competitiveness.

Ahrefs SEO Toolbar

Ahrefs provides an on-page SEO report containing data on how easy a page is to index and crawl, headers and sub-headers, social tags, localization, and more. The Ahrefs SEO toolbar lets you analyze SERPs for their domain rating, URL rating, and estimated organic search traffic. It also lets you know the number of backlinks, referring domains, and ranking keywords there are for the page you’re tracking.

SEMRush’s Keyword Overview

When you subscribe to SEMRush, you get access to several toolkits and software to help you create an SEO-optimized website. One of these tools is the Keyword Overview, which uses backlink data to calculate a page’s keyword difficulty. It provides search volume, number of results, cost per click, volume trend, and others.

Mangools Keyword Tool 

Mangools’ tool uses a website’s backlink profile to determine keyword difficulty. It looks at the authority of competitors and other factors like domain or page authority, citation flow, and trust flow. They recommend pursuing keywords with a difficulty of zero to 49; anything more than that would be highly competitive.

Note that these tools only measure link-building and PPC data. They do not factor in page relevance, so they aren’t definitive indicators of keyword difficulty. As such, relying only on them will make your content plan unbalanced.

What Else Determines Keyword Difficulty?

Determining keyword difficulty involves several other factors that influence rankings in SERPs. The content of the other pages in Google’s top 20, user intent, page popularity, and page authority all contribute to the competitiveness of a keyword. Here is a closer look at each.

1. Top 20 Content On Google

Looking at the top ten in the keyword’s search engine results pages gives you an idea of the type of content that generates traffic for Google now. The results in the 11th to 20th positions are a good source of information on emerging trends. Often, emerging content provides more material than the top ten.

Traditionalists focus on analyzing keywords in title tags, URLs, headers, and keywords in the content. However, this practice is inadequate. Instead of keyword positioning, you should look at the quality of writing on the page. For example, let’s look at the keyword “P-Trap replacement.” 

“P-Trap Replacement” SERP (USA, Los Angeles) – top two results

According to Ahrefs’ website authority checker, the number one organic result for the keyword “p-trap replacement” is an article on The Spruce covering how to replace a sink P-Trap. It has a strong DR—at 89. However, the number two result, a page from Home Depot’s website, has a DR of 90. A cursory look at both pages would show that The Spruce takes a more in-depth approach at discussing p-trap replacement. 

Besides showing step-by-step instructions (which Home Depot does as well), The Spruce provides background information on how a p-trap works and common materials manufacturers use to make p-traps. Google appreciates detailed takes on topics. It’s worth noting, though, that Home Depot uses more multimedia content on its page, which probably contributes to its authoritativeness—people might prefer linking to infographics and videos.

“P-Trap Replacement” SERP (USA, Los Angeles) – page two

Besides the first page, you could also look at the second one, which shows more organic links instead of results from the Google Knowledge Graph. For the keyword “p-trap replacement,” seven out of the eight organic results point to articles that walk readers through how they can replace their sink p-trap themselves.

The top organic result on the second page belongs to a plumbing company in Florida. It has a DR rating of 0.7, with 55 linking websites and 574 backlinks. The next is another service page, this time for an HVAC company. It has a DR of 35, as well as 864 linking websites and 6,388 backlinks. 

Again, it shows that backlinks are not the only criterion for page rankings. In both the first and second SERPs, the top organic result had a lower DR than the second one. What matters is looking for the quality of content in the first 20 results, analyzing what the pages contain, and keeping track of the next SERPs. Also, note that these results are from May 2021 and were conducted using a Los Angeles server. The specific numbers may differ where you are. However, these examples are enough to show why content relevance is still a vital aspect of optimization.

2. User Intent for the Keyword

It is also essential to know what content the user wants to see for specific keywords. Two types of user intent vital to content strategies are commercial and informational intent. People use keywords that show commercial intent when they are close to buying a product or subscribing to a service.

For example, people who use the keyword “soy candles for aromatherapy” are likely to be close to a purchase. Meanwhile, someone who searches “what are soy candles” will probably not add a soy candle to their online shopping cart just yet.

When producing content, avoid using keywords for commercial intent for articles intended for the top of the sales funnel. Also, don’t use informational keywords for articles that aim to get conversions. However, don’t rely solely on SERP analysis. Breaking this guideline is acceptable if you have something fresh and exciting to deliver!

3. Page and Domain Authority and Popularity

Finally, you should know how many backlinks each SERP page and SERP domain receives. Don’t settle for one or the other. It also helps to know the quality of the referring domains and backlinks for all pages. Checking the relatedness of the backlinks also helps. Any of the keyword research tools in this article can help you determine authority and popularity.


Again, the downside of using tools for page and domain authority is that even specialized software like these cannot show you metrics on topical popularity and authority. However, using a combination of domain and link authority, search intent analysis, and content analysis will help you arrive at a fair assessment of keyword difficulty. Team up with an SEO partner who understands keyword research and can provide insights you can use.

Clarify your content strategy when you hire Ranked. We provide managed, data-driven SEO services that help businesses establish a solid digital presence. Book a call with the team or activate your account today!