What Is Keyword Difficulty?
Keyword difficulty is a metric that measures how hard it would be to rank in Google’s top 10 organic (unpaid) results for a specific keyword.
It’s expressed as a percentage from 0 to 100—the higher the score, the more difficult it is to rank for that keyword.
In this article we’ll explore:
- Why keyword difficulty is important to understand
- What determines how difficult a keyword is
- How to find any keyword’s keyword difficulty score
Tip: Create a free Semrush account (no credit card needed) to follow along.
Why Is It Important to Understand Keyword Difficulty?
Understanding keyword difficulty can help you make informed decisions in the content planning and keyword research process of your search engine optimization (SEO) efforts—the processes and techniques you use to boost visibility in search results.
If you only target keywords that are too difficult to rank for, you may waste time and resources without seeing any results.
But if you only target keywords that are too easy to rank for, you may miss out on more valuable traffic and conversions.
But keyword difficulty (KD%) can help you find the sweet spot between super competitive keywords (that are out of reach) and low-competition keywords (that don’t get any searches).
In other words, KD% helps you pick the right keywords for your site—those that bring a good amount of organic traffic but don’t require too much effort.
What Determines How Difficult a Keyword Is to Rank for
Semrush and other platforms all calculate keyword difficulty based on a variety of factors.
We analyze the search engine results page (SERP) to see who’s ranking in the top 10.
Then, we look at those URLs to see:
- SERP-related qualities for the specific keyword
- The median number of referring domains to those URLs
- The median ratio of “dofollow”/nofollow links to those URLs
- The median Authority Score of those URLs
(Authority Score is a proprietary compound metric that grades the overall quality and SEO performance of a website or webpage.)
Other Factors That Affect Your Ranking Potential
There are other ways to understand how difficult it is to rank for a keyword besides studying KD%.
That includes evaluating:
- Your competitors
- Your content’s quality
- The keyword’s search intent
- Your backlink profile
An important factor in determining SEO keyword difficulty is knowing who’s competing for that particular keyword. It’ll help you see whether they have Authority Scores and content you can compete against.
And that means doing some SEO competitive analysis.
To find who you’re competing against for a specific keyword, open Keyword Overview.
Then, enter your keyword and click “Search.”
Scroll down to the “SERP Analysis” section, and you’ll see who’s ranking in the top 10 results for that keyword.
Notice you can also see each page’s Authority Score (AS), referring domains, backlinks, and other metrics.
You can also find out who your SEO competitors are using Market Explorer.
Open the tool, select “Find Competitors,” enter your domain, and click “Research a market.”
Then, scroll down to the “Domain vs Market Dynamics” section and select “Organic Search.”
You’ll see your top market competitors in terms of organic search traffic—giving you a better idea of who to watch out for. And you can benchmark your site against overall market trends.
To study a competitor more in depth, run their domain through Domain Overview.
Here you can view their organic search traffic, backlinks, and Authority Score. To see how they’re performing and whether you can realistically compete.
Your Content’s Quality
Quality content is content that’s relevant, trustworthy, and helpful to your audience.
And Google’s algorithm is designed to serve this type of content at the top of the SERPs.
Even if you find keywords with the right KD%, you’re only going to rank if you create quality content with them.
It’s as simple as that.
A great way to start is to use the SEO Writing Assistant.
It’ll scan your text as you write. And provide recommendations regarding readability, keyword usage, tone of voice, and originality.
You can work directly on the platform. Or use the Google Docs, WordPress, or Microsoft Word plugins.
Simply start writing, add your target keywords, and click on “Get recommendations.”
Pay particular attention to the SEO recommendations. Implementing those changes gives you a greater chance of ranking for your target keyword.
The Keyword’s Search Intent
Search intent (or keyword intent) is the reason why someone types a query into a search engine.
And satisfying intent is one of the most important factors for ranking higher on Google.
There are four different types of keyword intent:
- Informational: The user wants to learn more about a topic
- Commercial: The user is researching options before making a purchase decision
- Transactional: The user wants to complete an action (i.e., buy something)
- Navigational: The user wants to find a specific page
You can easily find a keyword’s search intent with Keyword Overview.
Just add the keyword, click “Search,” and you’ll see its intent in the dashboard.
And if you’re doing keyword research with the Keyword Magic Tool, you’ll also see each keyword’s intent.
So, as you create content for your site, make sure it aligns with the intent behind the keywords you’re targeting.
If you do, it’ll be easier to rank—regardless of the keyword’s difficulty.
Your Backlink Profile
Google’s algorithm prioritizes pages with lots of high-quality backlinks.
Quality backlinks—inbound links that come from authoritative sources—tell search engines that your content shows expertise and is trustworthy.
Which helps boost your site’s authority.
What does this have to do with keyword difficulty?
If your top competitors for a keyword all have strong backlink profiles, it’ll be more difficult for you to rank.
But backlinks can work in your favor, too.
Because you can create a link building strategy to gain more high-quality backlinks that boost your site’s authority. Which helps your pages rank.
Popular link building strategies include:
- Email outreach
- Broken link building
- Unlinked brand mentions
You can evaluate any website’s authority objectively using Backlink Analytics.
Just enter your domain, click “Analyze,” and you’ll see the “Authority Score” widget in the dashboard.
You can also add up to four competitors to see how your authority compares.
How to Check Keyword Difficulty
You can easily find any keyword’s KD% with a keyword difficulty tool like Keyword Overview.
Just type your keyword into the tool, and you’ll see the score in the dashboard.
If you’re conducting keyword research, the Keyword Magic Tool also displays each keyword’s difficulty score in the “KD %” column.
And this is how the scores break down:
0-14: Very easy
These keywords may be good to target if you want to rank with the least amount of effort. But make sure you double-check the search volume before you decide to target them. Because the volume can be quite low.
These keywords are still relatively easy targets, even if your domain is new. You’ll need to produce high-quality, relevant content to rank for these.
To rank for these keywords, you’ll need to create content that is high-quality, helpful, useful, structured, and well-optimized.
In addition to producing quality, well-structured, and optimized content, you’ll also need several high-quality backlinks.
If you want to win these keywords, you’ll need to put in a lot of effort. You’ll need more and better quality backlinks to support your content.
85-100: Very hard
These are the absolute hardest keywords to compete for. In addition to focusing on high-quality content and link building, you’ll need to put a lot of time and effort into on-page SEO tactics and content promotion.
And this is what it looks like inside the tool:
What Is a Good Keyword Difficulty Score?
Keyword ranking difficulty is a relative metric.
You must know (and understand) your site’s Authority Score. And how you compare to your competitors in terms of organic traffic, backlinks, and referring domains.
For example, if your site has a high Authority Score, you may win more difficult keywords more easily.
In that case, it might be worth targeting keywords with high difficulty scores.
But it will likely be much harder to rank for those keywords if you’re running a new site.
In this case, it might be wise to avoid the most difficult keywords for now. And instead target easier ones to build up your authority over time.
But some difficult keywords are also foundational to your business. You might decide it’s worth the extra effort to target them, even if it takes longer to rank.
So, how do you go about choosing keywords based on their difficulty?
- Understand that SEO is a long-term game. Even if a keyword seems out of reach right now, that doesn’t mean you should ignore it altogether. You just need to accept that it’ll take time to rank.
- Balance easy-to-rank-for keywords with difficult ones. The best strategy is to balance lower-difficulty keywords with those that will take time to earn. Building out topic clusters (groups of content that center around a main topic) is a great way to do this. Target broader terms that have higher difficulty scores with your pillar pages and target terms that have lower scores with your cluster content.
How Do Long-Tail Keywords Impact Keyword Difficulty?
Long-tail keywords are highly specific search queries that usually have a lower search volume and lower competition levels (and are often longer).
And they also tend to have lower keyword difficulty scores.
It can be useful to target these keywords because they:
- Are easier to rank for
- Drive highly-targeted traffic
- Tend to have higher conversion rates
Meaning that long-tail keywords with low KD% scores can be great keywords to target.
Take It a Step Further
Now you know what keyword difficulty means.
So, it’s time for you to apply what you’ve learned to your keyword research and content planning.
As you analyze which keywords to target, use the “KD %” filter in the Keyword Magic Tool and select the range you want to see.
For example, if you’re starting a new website, you’ll likely only want to see keywords with “Very Easy” and “Easy” KD% scores.
Another way to see useful keywords with relatively low KD% scores is to click on “Questions.”
This is especially useful if you’re conducting keyword research for your blog and want easy-to-rank-for keywords with informational intent.
Try it for yourself!
Create a free Semrush account and run up to 10 keyword searches per day using Keyword Overview or the Keyword Magic Tool.