Although it's been used by SEOs in their keyword research processes for more than a decade now, Keyword Difficulty remains novelty as its formula became ever more sophisticated, just as the search results have.
In this article, I’ll go through some of Keyword Difficulty fundamentals, as well as the more in-depth details of its formula and show you a few workflows based on the Keyword Difficulty score.
What is Keyword Difficulty
Keyword Difficulty is a score that weights how difficult it is to achieve top 10 rankings for a given term. It is used mostly in the keyword research process for selecting the keywords for which you actually have a chance of ranking.
It helps you answer critical questions that come up during keyword research:
Are we able to rank high enough for this keyword to get any of its search volume?
Are we going to pull enough traffic from this keyword to justify the time and resources invested in optimizing for it?
Keyword Difficulty vs. Google’s Keyword Competition metric
Before the Keyword Difficulty metric, people relied only on Google’s ‘Keyword Competition’ metric, from Keyword Planner, to determine how crowded the SERP was for a keyword.
But Keyword Difficulty and the Competition metric, tell two different stories.
The Competition metric actually shows how many advertisers are bidding on a keyword in Google Ads, as compared with the rest of the keywords. So, while it definitely shows the interest people have in gaining paid search visibility for a keyword, it is not representative of how difficult it is to get ranked organically for a term.
This explains why their values are so different from one another, for the same keyword:
Typically, keyword difficulty scores range from 1 to 100, while the Competition metric from Keyword Planner is a value between 0 and 1. For both metrics though, a higher score would indicate a tougher competition or a higher difficulty to rank for that keyword.
At this point, it’s also worth mentioning that the difficulty score is an estimated metric, that aims to give you a broad understanding of how intense competition for a keyword is, rather than an exact measure.
How is Keyword Difficulty calculated
As a concept, the difficulty in ranking for a keyword in the top ten narrows down to a couple of things:
How many websites are targeting the same keyword - the more options Google will have for delivering search results for a query, the “pickier” it can get when choosing the first 10 results.
Who are the top 10 results ranking for your keyword - The better these top 10 pages are optimized for the target keyword, the harder it will be to outperform any of them and break into the top 10 listings.
To manually measure ranking difficulty based on these two criteria, you’d need to rate how optimized the top 10 ranked pages are for a keyword, and compute difficulty scores for each of the terms you are targeting.
Run a complete competitor analysis to identify the competition best practices.
You’d rate things like:
The number of external backlinks and domains pointing to each ranking page
Page Authority and trustworthiness
The Domain’s Authority
On-page optimization of each ranking page
... and expand as much as you can and/or find relevant for you.
Tools, on the other hand, use various formulas for computing the Keyword Difficulty Score:
Some use only backlinks to determine difficulty (e.g., ahrefs)
Other tools include multiple rankings factors into the formula (e.g., AWR, moz, semrush)
Therefore, the difficulty scores you get from one tool won’t necessarily match the others’ because of the way they’re calculated.
The numbers from different tools would likely fall in the same ballpark, but I wouldn’t expect them to match.
Keep in mind at all times that these metrics are estimates.
If you’re using or planning to use a tool for pulling the Difficulty metric, be sure to inform yourself what formula they’re using. If you don’t understand how the metric is calculated, it will be harder to grasp its real meaning and pull actionable information.
What is the Keyword Difficulty formula AWR uses
There are usually two approaches when it comes to Keyword Difficulty:
1. Analyzing 1,000 keywords at a time
Having keyword difficulty scores for your list of terms is the most helpful here because all you want is to find out which of these keywords are worth spending your time on. In this case, the metric you will use most is:
This metric gives you an overview of the keywords’ difficulty. It aggregates three other difficulty metrics (as shown below) and it considers the SERP features found in the Top 10 results and how they might influence the difficulty of achieving higher rankings in that SERP.
2. Create content for one really important keyword
When you know precisely the keyword you want to write a piece of content for, having a global keyword difficulty score is not enough, because it hides the real reason why the keyword earned its score.
In this case, knowing everything you can about that keyword is the most important. That is why we have broken down the global score into its three main components:
This metric is calculated based on the backlink authority of the web pages ranked in the Top 10 results. It shows if you’re competing against highly linked-to and authoritative pages for this SERP.
There are two types of data that we use to calculate URL Difficulty:
For this, we look at the actual number of links that point to the URL and the Citation Flow metric from Majestic, which shows the popularity of the URL without considering the quality of the links pointing to it.
Here we look at the Trust Flow metric from Majestic, which analyses how trustworthy the URL is by measuring its quality. The more links that are pointing to this URL are authoritative and qualitative, the higher the Trust Flow is.
For this metric, we take into account the backlink authority of the domains ranked in the Top 10 results. This metric basically shows how authoritative the domains you’d be competing against for this keyword are, and therefore how difficult it would be to outrank them.
The data we use to calculate Domain Difficulty is the same as for the URL Difficulty. We look at both Citation Flow and Trust Flow, but this time for the domain instead of the URL.
This metric is based only on on-page ranking factors. It shows how keyword-focused the Top 10 pages are and how perfected their on-page optimization is.
This is the most complex metric of all three. It takes into account 14 metrics to calculate the Content Difficulty for each page in the Top 10.
We look at the URL, title, meta description, keyword density, outbound links, and internal links, among others.
Knowing all the above three components that contribute to the Global Keyword Difficulty score makes it easier to understand why each keyword earned a particular rating and how optimized your pages need to be to get a Top 10 ranking.
How to use the Keyword Difficulty metrics in AWR
Let's look at some examples, examine their Keyword Difficulty metrics, and look at a possible workflow for determining the best strategy that could help us rank in these SERPs.
1. Global Difficulty: 43
This doesn't tell us much, other than the fact that this might be a keyword that could be possible to rank for.
Let's look at the detailed metrics in the Keyword Difficulty report:
URL Difficulty: 19
Domain Difficulty: 70
Content Difficulty: 42
Now, this makes a lot more sense. This is a good example of a SERP that is dominated by large sites that have a high domain authority (Domain Difficulty: 70), with moderately optimized content (Content Difficulty: 42), but with a low number of links (and less quality) to the actual pages (URL Difficulty: 19).
I would approach this case by converting one of my well-linked landing pages and optimize it for this keyword. Hopefully, if my domain is also in the mid-range as far as the number of links pointing to it, I might actually have a good chance of ranking for this keyword.
Let’s go over to the SERP Difficulty report and see how the Top 10 results actually look like:
The Keyword Difficulty metrics that you see here are calculated for each URL in the Top 10. This tells you how tough it would be for you to replace that URL in the Top 10 with your own.
I can clearly see that there are a few URLs here that could be easily replaced by my well linked and optimized page.
2. Global Difficulty: 53
At first sight, this looks like an approachable keyword. And indeed it might as well be, but let's take a closer look:
URL Difficulty: 73
Domain Difficulty: 86
Content Difficulty: 27
This is an example of a SERP that is dominated by large sites such as Wikipedia or Imdb (Domain Difficulty: 86), with a good amount of links to the actual pages (URL Difficulty: 73), but with very unoptimized content for this keyword (Content Difficulty: 27).
In this case, it would be almost impossible for me to rank if my site has a very low domain authority. But if I have a strong domain, I could probably build a better-optimized content, which will then attract some links and could have a chance of ranking in this SERP.
I would also be very careful to make sure that my page matches the intent for this SERP as that would be a very important factor.
3. Global Difficulty: 31
This looks like a very easy to approach keyword. Let's take a closer look:
URL Difficulty: 21
Domain Difficulty: 37
Content Difficulty: 73
Have you ever seen a SERP with pages that are well optimized for that keyword but with almost no links pointing to them and wondered how they rank so well? Well, this is one of those cases.
The links to these pages and domains might not be the strength of this SERP, but I wouldn’t take this lightly. There are some very optimized pages for this keyword in the Top 10, so unless I have a good domain with some good links and my page is at least as well optimized as these pages are, I would probably not have a real chance of ranking in this SERP.
What is a good Keyword Difficulty score
Obviously, everybody loves a low difficulty score for their keywords, but the real question is:
What’s the highest difficulty you can go after for keywords and still be able to achieve top rankings.
However, the answer is not as straightforward as you’d hope for.
Keyword difficulty, as with any difficulty, is a subjective measure. Although averages are calculated, what difficult to rank means to every one of our websites ultimately depends on each one’s current authority and optimization resources.
You may find yourself able to comfortably climb rankings for a keyword with above-average difficulty, while others struggle with low difficulty terms.
A good way to evaluate what an approachable difficulty would be for your website is to look at the difficulty score of the keywords you already gained rankings for.
In AWR you can make this segmentation on the spot, right inside the Keyword Difficulty report:
You can also use the additional segmentation options available, and get benchmarks like:
A good difficulty for keywords with Transactional intent
Difficulty benchmark for keywords you’ve won Featured Snippets for
What’s an attainable difficulty for different locations
Based on your previous efforts to achieve those rankings, you can make a fair guess on what amount of resources you’ll need to invest to pull the same optimization level all over again.
How to determine difficulty for clusters of keywords
One of the benefits of using tools to get the difficulty scores for your keywords, other than the obvious - speed and volume, is that it enables you to aggregate difficulty for sets of terms quickly.
Thus, when you're researching topics and keywords to target with your content strategy, you’ll be able to assess how difficult it would be to get top rankings for each of your topic clusters faster.
Moreover, AWR’s keyword difficulty report comes with multiple segmentation options that can be custom used. I find it particularly interesting to look at difficulty scores for:
Keywords with various search intents
High search volume terms
Queries that trigger SERP features
Difficulty to rank for keywords with different intents
Traditionally it’s considered that there are three intents behind a search query - informational, navigational and transactional - the latter being known as the most competitive one, given its direct monetary value.
For example, if you’re optimizing for brick-and-mortar businesses, measuring difficulty for keywords with local intent is particularly valuable.
These search queries may deliver better conversions for your business than other intents, so being able to specifically assess their competition helps a lot.
Difficulty for keywords with high search volume
High search volume is typically correlated with increased SERP competition as well, nevertheless, we meticulously look for the sweet spot - keywords with good volumes and relatively low difficulty.
This is where segmentation does the trick.
You won’t pull much insight by only looking at the difficulty of the most-searched-for keywords, but things become really interesting when you start segmenting these keywords into topics and search intents.
Keyword Difficulty for queries that trigger SERP features
If you research SERP features opportunities, you’ll find it helpful to narrow your analysis down to the keywords that trigger the feature types you’re interested in.
For featured snippets, in particular, I like to look at how difficult the SERPs are for keywords where my website has won the snippet, as compared to SERPs where my competitors are listed for position zero.
Whichever source you would choose to get it from, the difficulty score adds unique insights to the keyword research and analysis processes, and proves enormously helpful for improving the efficiency of your keyword targeting efforts.
If you have an AWR subscription, you can just log into your account to see the keyword difficulty metrics and reports we've discussed in this article for your keywords. The feature is available on all plans.
For those of you who haven't had the chance to give Advanced Web Ranking a try yet, a free 30-day trial with access to the difficulty metrics is also available, so be sure to sign up for a free account and check it out.
I'd be happy to discuss this further with you and answer all your questions in the comments section below.