What is Keyword Difficulty?
Keyword difficulty (aka keyword competition) is a hugely important metric to look at while doing keyword research & creating your SEO content strategy.
It essentially helps answers the question “how hard will it be to rank for this keyword”?
If you can understand how to navigate & evaluate this metric you are well on your way to ranking for all the terms you want and bringing a flood of organic traffic to your website.
Each SEO tool has its own way of calculating the difficulty of a keyword, so in this article, we will be sure to cover each of the tools you can use, but also give you some practical advice about how to approach this hugely important part of SEO.
We will give you the step-by-step method that we use to understand what is needed to win, and also uncover some of our top-secret strategies for evaluating the true keyword competition that will give you a super clear picture of what you will need to rank above your competitors.
What is Keyword Competition?
Keyword Competition is a term that refers to how difficult it will be to rank your website for any given keyword.
Understanding the competition of any given keyword will help guide your SEO strategy and answer questions like:
- How hard will it be to rank for this keyword?
- Can I legitimately compete to rank for this keyword?
- Should I use my resources to try and rank for this keyword, or would they be better used elsewhere”?
SEO Tools usually give you an indication of how competitive a keyword is using their own proprietary metrics, and they don’t all take into account all of the factors of competition – but they usually are calculated using some combination of:
- URL Strength: How strong does your URL need to be
- Domain Strength: How strong does your Domain need to be
- URL Trust: How trustworthy does your URL need to be
- Domain Trust: How trustworthy does your Domain need to be
- Number of Links/RDs: How many links (or RDs) will you need to get to that URL
- Time: How much time it will take to rise to the top
- Popularity: Popularity of keyword (how many websites are trying to rank for this same term)
- Content Optimization: How well a piece of content is optimized for a certain keyword
- SERP Features: What (and how many) types of SERP features are taking up real estate.
- Searcher Intent: The closer you align your page to the intent of the searcher, the more you will solidify your rankings when it gets to page 1 – because people will click your link and convey the proper “user signals” to Google to show the algorithm what it needs to believe you do, in fact, have the best piece of content.
Keyword Competition Tools
Each SEO Tool has its own proprietary way of calculating the difficulty of a keyword, so let’s start by understanding the main tools that give predictions about keyword competition & breakdown how they calculate it.
- SEM Rush
- Bonus: Other tools
Ahrefs is a very popular SEO tool that helps SEOs effectively craft an SEO strategy, providing a ton of data on your website, your competitors’ websites, the SERP features, etc.
Ahrefs has the biggest keyword database on the web, with over 7.4 billion keywords (from more than 170 countries) growing.
Keyword Difficulty (KD) is the term Ahrefs uses for its metrics to help you understand how competitive a keyword/search query is.
Keyword Difficulty measures the competitiveness of a keyword on a scale of 1-100.
Keyword difficulty essentially tells you how many referring domains you need to your page to rank for the keyword you want.
- Ahrefs KD is our favorite metric to use to start the process of understanding the difficulty of a keyword.
- Ahrefs KD is the most accurate single measurement of a Keyword’s Difficulty that we have used.
- They have a nice browser extension called the Ahrefs Bar which allows you to see a SERP Overlay to compare websites side by side easily.
- Ahrefs KD does not use on-page factors to determine how hard it can be to rank for a keyword.
- Ahrefs KD shows 0 for a lot of KDs that we believe is a little…too relaxed.
Keyword Difficulty, on SEMrush, gives you an estimate of how hard it will be to rank for your keyword from a new page on your website.
Like Ahrefs, their score is on a scale of 1-100.
The way they calculate KD must be very different though because the numbers they pull are drastically different.
Moz was a very popular SEO tool, but these days I don’t personally know many people using it, simply because their crawler is not that fast and they usually have way less websites in their database.
Moz has similar tools to Ahrefs & SEM Rush – features like seeing the backlinks to your page, getting information about keyword difficulty & search volume, etc.
They also have a nice browser extension called the Moz Bar which allows you to see a SERP Overlay to compare websites side by side easily.
- They also have a nice browser extension called the Moz Bar which allows you to see a SERP Overlay to compare websites side by side easily.
- Smaller database of websites.
- Not as accurate backlink analysis – they miss a lot of links.
Other Keyword Competition Tools
Just for the sake of being comprehensive, I wanted to include a list of some other tools you can use to check the difficulty/competitiveness of keywords – plus some of these are free.
- Google Keyword Planner
How to Evaluate Keyword Competition
If we compare the findings from above, you can see, each tool gives a drastically different readout of how competitive a search term is (and even how much search volume there is).
So, to combat this huge disparity of tools, we like to start our keyword competitiveness evaluation process by looking at metrics (truthfully we only look at Ahrefs), and then we have some manual checks we can do to really get a better understanding of the term.
The full process involves looking at a variety of data, rather than just one metric (which we know does not take into account everything you need to rank – because even the tools themselves say they don’t factor in a lot of things like on-page SEO.
Understanding Keyword Competitiveness
- Keyword Difficulty (KD)
- Domain Rating (DR)
- URL Rating (UR)
- # of Results: Keyword
- # of Results: All in Title
- # of Results: All in URL
- Signs of Low Competition
- SERP Stability (Position History)
- Keyword Difficulty Baseline
Step 1: Look at keyword difficulty
Keyword Difficulty (KD) estimates how hard it will be to rank for a given keyword somewhere in the top 10 organic search results.
Use the tool of your choice to look at the actual “KD” number.
The more you do this (with the same tool), the more you will start to understand relative difficulties.
The numbers on their own might not necessarily have any pragmatic meaning to you at first, but the more you do it the more you will begin to get a sense of what it takes.
Step 2: Look at Domain Rating (DR)
Domain Rating (DR) is an Ahrefs measure of relative “backlink popularity” of your website (or your competitors’ website) compared to all other websites in their database. DR is based on a scale of 1-100 and is a logarithmic scale (higher = stronger). It is calculated based on the # of websites linking to the domain, and the strength of the website’s backlink profile.
If the websites ranking for a certain term have a high DR, compare that to your website to get a sense of if you are “in the same league” as them.
Use the SERP Overview report to quickly compare the DR of the websites ranking for your desired term.
Step 3: Look at the URL Rating (UR)
URL Rating (UR) shows the strength of the target URL’s backlink profile on a 100-point logarithmic scale. Both internal and external links influence this metric.
URL rating is an excellent way to understand how many referring domains (unique backlinks) you will need to send to your article to have a chance to rank on Page 1.
Links are one of the most expensive parts of doing SEO, so understand this is a very critical part of planning your SEO strategy.
Use the SERP Overview to see the UR (and RDs) of each URL that is ranking.
Step 4: Check the # of SERP Results for the keyword
Understanding just how may other websites are trying to rank for a keyword is a huge part of evaluating the competition.
Use Google to search the keyword and see how many results show up:
As of the time writing this there are 23,900,000 search results in Google’s index that are “relevant” for the keyword “keyword difficulty”.
Does this mean you are competing against 23,900,000 other people?
If you answered Yes, you are wrong.
Why not? And why did I put “relevant” in quotes like that?
Because here is where a little secret comes into play – not all of those are actually relevant.
And, Google is not actually going to show all of them.
So, the next thing you can do is scroll to the bottom of the page and click through the “more pages” area to see actually how many pages of results there are (giving you a more true/accurate idea of how many results you are competing against).
Looks like we only made it to Page 19 before Google gave up trying to give us results.
And for good reason – look at the results on the last page, do they really look like they would be a good resource to answer our search intent?
Step 5: Check the # of SERP Results for “All in Title”
As you can see from the previous step, many of the SERP results that pulled up are not relevant, so let’s try another way to hone in on getting a more accurate/true picture of how many actually relevant competitors there are that we are up against.
We do this by using advanced search operators.
The first one we will use is ” allintitle: “
The allintitle operator brings back only results that have the keywords we are using somewhere in the HTML Page Title (or exactly in order if we put quotes around the search).
Use Google to search the keyword and see how many results show up:
Much better than ~24 million, but still quite alot of people to compete with. We can start to see why the KDs range from 47-69.
Step 5: Check the # of SERP Results for “All in URL”
The next check we want to do is see how many of these people have our keyword in their URL.
The next operator we will use is ” allinurl: “
The allinurl operator brings back only results that have the keywords we are using somewhere in the URL (or exactly in order if we put quotes around the search).
Use Google to search the keyword and see how many results show up:
Okay, similar to allintitle.
Looks like we have close to 3,000 people to compete with.
Step 7: Look for Signs of Low Competition
After you do this for a while you start to see patterns in SERPs with low keyword competition.
The 3 main signs of a low competition SERP are:
- Results with poor optimization (like if the title tags all look under-optimized)
- A lot of generic sites ranking
- Low-quality results (if you click on the result and it’s clearly thin content & not well done)
One of the most obvious ones is when there are a lot of “thin” sites ranking for terms.
- Multiple results of the same domain ranking
- Ezine articles
- Youtube URLs (not the Video carousel)
- Web 2.0s (like Blogspot, etc.)
- eBay listings
- Press releases
If you pop a keyword in a Google search and come across a SERP that has alot of these types of websites ranking, it is a sign that you can probably rank without too much trouble (assuming you create a quality piece of content)
Step 8: SERP Stability (Position History)
The next thing we want to look at is the stability of the SERP (Search Engine Results Page).
If we see the SERP has been changing a lot, that is a clear indication that Google is not happy with the search results – giving you an easier time to be considered for the position of top dog.
If we look up the term “fidget spinners” we can see that Google is still trying to figure out who has the best resource for that term:
However, if we look up “outreach link building” it seems Google is quite happy with who is ranking there – and has not changed that SERP much at all for a very long time:
This search is “solidified”.
Good luck trying to rank for that one.
Step 9: Understand Your KD Baseline
This is kind of a bonus step and something you really do for your entire website – not for every search term you are trying to evaluate the difficulty of.
A Keyword Difficulty Baseline is a way we can answer the question “What terms could I expect to rank for with minimal effort based on how strong my website is currently?”
For this example, let’s give credit where credit is due, and use the website of the guy I actually learned this tactic from – Robbie Richards (thanks Robbie!)
How To Find Your Keyword Difficulty Baseline
1. Put your website into “Ahrefs > Site Explorer“
2. Navigate to Organic Keywords > Sort by only the keywords on positions 1-10
Note: You can contract or expand this to understand a smaller or wider range.
For example, if you want to know “what keywords can I rank in the Top 3 spots” you would want to sort positions 1-3, but if you want to know “what keywords can I get close to Page 1 pretty easily, and then maybe send a couple links to pop onto page 1” then you might want to filter by positions 1-15 or 1-20.
3. Export your keywords
4. Navigate to the OLD “Ahrefs > Keywords Explorer“
5. Add the keywords from your CSV Export back into “Ahrefs > Keywords Explorer”
6. Check the “Difficulty Distribution”
You can now see all of the keywords on robbierichards.com ranking on Page 1 (aka Positions 1-10).
This tells us that if he uncovers a new keyword he wants to rank for (assuming its relevant to his website’s theme/industry) that he could reasonably expect to be competitive for this keyword as long as it was somewhere in the KD range of the terms that he already ranks on Page 1 for.
The KD Baseline for Robbie is somewhere around the 41-60 mark.
Understanding & evaluating keyword difficulty takes time and practice but is a critical skill for creating a successful SEO strategy.
Like anything in life, you have to understand competition in order to know what you have to focus on, and what it’s going to take to achieve your goals.
The best way to get better at this stuff is to practice, and the more you do it the faster you will get.
Eventually, evaluating KD becomes almost second nature – at this point I can get a very clear picture of how hard something will be to rank for in just a couple seconds, and you can too with practice.