Keyword Difficulty in SEO: A Calculated Approach to Outrank Competitors

By:  Dileep Thekkethil

Updated On: May 30, 2023

Quick Summary:

Keyword difficulty is the estimation of how hard it is to rank at the top of search results for a particular keyword. Mastering keyword difficulty requires an in-depth understanding of the concept and the potential to devise a winning strategy to outperform your competition.

  • Keyword difficulty is often determined based on the authority of the websites that rank in top positions for the keyword, their page authority and content quality.

  • Ranging on a scale of 0-100, a higher keyword difficulty score signals the need for more effort to rank higher.

  • Different SEO tools generate keyword difficulty scores based on different metrics. Moz calculates it based on the Page Authority (PA) of the top-ranking pages, Ahrefs determines the score based on the number of backlinks pointing to the top-ranking pages and Semrush estimates keyword difficulty based on a combination of page and domain authority, search volume, and the presence of SERP features.

  • For relatively new websites, targeting low-difficulty keywords with a significant search volume can boost the chances of ranking higher and establishing topic authority.

  • Choose your keywords based on relevancy and their alignment with your business objectives.

  • User intent matters. Craft high-quality content that meets the user intent to make it to the top of Google for a particular search term.

  • Build powerful backlinks from niche-relevant sites to improve your page authority and increase the search appearances of your page for the target keyword.

  • Optimize your web pages with the right keywords placed contextually across titles, meta tags, headers and the body of the content.

  • Leverage social media, email marketing, and other promotional strategies to get your content a wider reach.

  • Reevaluate your keywords regularly and tweak your strategy to stay ahead of the competition every time.

Here is a quick video explaining the concept:

Read along for more details

If SEO is the universe we live in, then consider keywords as the dark matter that holds it together. A well-crafted SEO optimization strategy positions keywords at its core, with all other activities revolving around a single synchronized goal: ranking those keywords at the top of Google search results.

However, a website owner must consider a plethora of factors before finalizing the keywords. The primary factor is the intent of the keyword, which changes depending on the type of content the website aims to promote. If it’s a blog, the intent is usually informational. 

In the case of service or product pages, the intent leans towards buyer-oriented keywords. If you run a review site, the keywords could reflect commercial intent or consideration intent.

After identifying the type of keyword that best suits your website, the next step involves finding keywords that are easier to rank. This is where the concept of Keyword Difficulty (KD) becomes essential.

Keyword Difficulty is an estimation provided by SEO tools to offer a snapshot of the competition a website must surpass before it can rank at the top of search results. Put simply, the higher the keyword difficulty, the more time and effort required to rank it at the top of search engines.

However, let’s clarify a common misconception. Keyword Difficulty range is not data that Google provides. Instead, it is an estimation given by the most popular SEO tools. This estimation is based on factors such as domain authority, page authority, and the quality of content on the sites that already rank at the top of search results.

This comprehensive guide seeks to delve deeply into the concept of Keyword Difficulty, its significance, and how to effectively utilize it to bolster your SEO strategy. 

Understanding Keyword Difficulty

SEO professionals may use different terms to describe Keyword Difficulty. Some use the term ‘SEO Difficulty’, while others call it ‘Keyword Competition’. Regardless of the terminology, they all refer to the same concept.

As mentioned earlier, the keyword difficulty range of a search term is determined based on the authority of the websites that rank in top positions, the authority of the pages, and the quality of the content. Indeed, all three factors are interrelated in some way or another.

A page with high-quality content typically garners more external references in the form of backlinks. As a page receives increased recognition from external websites, it enhances both the page’s authority and the overall authority of the website.

You might be wondering why I bring this point to the forefront. The reason is straightforward. Regardless of the type of keyword you are aiming to rank, if the content fails to satisfy the intent of the user, your page will struggle to break into the top positions.High difficulty keywords

For example, if you’re trying to rank for the keyword “best smartphones 2023,” the top-ranking pages are likely from high-authority tech websites such as TechRadar or Tech Advisor.

Both these sites feature comprehensive, high-quality content and have earned authority over the years. Hence, the keyword difficulty would naturally be high. Additionally, despite the keyword having a relatively low search volume, the difficulty remains high.

Why is Keyword Difficulty Important? A Case Study Approach

Consider yourself a newcomer, having just launched a website listing the top gadgets. You would surely conduct keyword research to identify terms that can drive traffic to your site. 

Everything seems fine until this point. However, if the keywords you’ve settled on are all high-difficulty keywords, you might struggle to rank despite producing quality content, possibly taking months or even years to achieve decent ranking.

Don’t misunderstand; the issue isn’t your content or website. Rather, Google and other search engines find it challenging to identify a competitive advantage when comparing your site to those already holding top positions for these keywords.

Naturally, you can circumvent this issue if your content creates a buzz, leading to extensive discussions and backlinks to your site. However, achieving this might necessitate reliance on other marketing platforms.

So, to bring us back to the type of keywords you should focus on if you own a relatively new website, aim for those with low keyword difficulty.


In the context of a gadget website, you could focus on a keyword like “emergency phone for kids,” which has a low difficulty score but a moderate to high search volume.

By tapping into such less-explored yet frequently searched keywords, you increase your chances of ranking at the top of Google’s results. Additionally, this can help establish your initial topic authority in Google algorithm’s eyes, which is crucial if you aim to rank high difficulty keywords in the future.

Alongside other factors like search volume and intent, the keyword difficulty metric helps SEO professionals choose the right keywords to target. However, it’s crucial to note that different tools measure Keyword Difficulty differently, leading to substantial score variances for the same keyword.

Therefore, to truly grasp how challenging it might be to rank for a keyword, it’s necessary to look beyond the numbers provided by these tools. That being said, most tools employ a keyword difficulty range from 0-100, with zero indicating the lowest difficulty and 100 the highest.

How is Keyword Difficulty Calculated Across Different SEO Tools

Almost all popular SEO tools calculate Keyword Difficulty using their own proprietary metrics and algorithms. 

Moz: Moz’s Keyword Difficulty score is based on the Page Authority (PA) of the top-ranking pages for a given keyword. 

Ahrefs: Ahrefs, on the other hand, calculates Keyword Difficulty based on the number of backlinks pointing to the top-ranking pages. 

SEMRush: SEMrush uses a combination of page and domain authority, search volume, and the presence of SERP features to calculate its Keyword Difficulty score. 

Understanding these differences can help you make more informed decisions when choosing which tool to use for your keyword research.

Strategies for Ranking for High Difficulty Keywords

Don’t be intimidated by high keyword difficulty. Ranking your pages for such keywords can be challenging but not impossible. Here are some tried and tested strategies that we have implemented on the Stan Ventures website and even for our clients to help them rank for high difficulty keywords: 

  1. Create High-Quality, Comprehensive Content: The crux of any SEO strategy is your content. The more value the content offers to the users, the higher your chances of ranking even for high difficulty keywords. So, you must focus on creating content that has your signature inputs so that search engines like Google can’t ignore ranking you ahead of the ones that have taken the top positions. 
  2. Build High-Quality Backlinks: If you accomplish the first criteria, then backlinks can flow in naturally. But if you want to get them quick and easy, try our powerful backlink building service whereby you get niche-relevant backlinks from sites with real traffic. The truth is, even in 2023, backlinks are a major factor in how search engines rank pages. Focus on building high-quality backlinks to improve your page’s authority.
  3. Optimize Your Page: Make sure your page is fully optimized with the target keyword used judiciously across the title tag, meta description, headers, and the content itself. Also, make sure you don’t overdo it beyond the recommended keyword density. Also, a page that loads slowly and causes misery to the user who is trying to access the website will not rank on search engines in spite of all your efforts. So, make sure you have a website that’s technically sound under the hood. If you have concerns about your site’s optimization, check out our professionally managed SEO service, which offers a comprehensive solution to all your on-page, technical and off-page SEO concerns.
  4. Promote Your Content: Use social media, email marketing, and other promotional strategies to get your content in front of as many people as possible. The more people see your content, the higher your chances of getting backlinks and social signals, which can help improve your rankings.

Common Mistakes

When dealing with Keyword Difficulty, there are several common SEO mistakes to avoid:

  1. Focusing Only on Keyword Difficulty: While Keyword Difficulty is important, it’s not the only factor to consider when choosing keywords. Relevance to your audience, your website’s existing authority in the particular niche and alignment with your business goals are also crucial. 
  2. Ignoring Long-Tail Keywords: Long-tail keywords often have lower Keyword Difficulty scores and can be easier to rank for. Plus, they often have high conversion rates as they’re more intent-specific.
  3. Not Regularly Reevaluating Keyword Difficulty: The SEO landscape is constantly changing, and so is Keyword Difficulty. Regularly reevaluating your target keywords can help you stay ahead of the competition. A keyword that has low difficulty may turn into a high difficulty one if there is a growing trend among your competitors to publish content that targets the same keyword. 

The Role of Keyword Difficulty in a Broader SEO Strategy

Keyword Difficulty is a critical metric in SEO, but it’s just one piece of the SEO puzzle. A winning SEO strategy can be only defined by incorporating factors such as keyword relevance, search intent, content quality, and more. 

For instance, a keyword with a high difficulty score might still be worth targeting if it’s highly relevant to your audience and has a high search volume. Additionally, there is no reason why an established website should shy away from focusing on high difficulty keywords.

On the flipside, focusing on a keyword with a low difficulty score might not be a good idea, especially if it’s not relevant to your business or doesn’t align with the search intent of your target audience.

Understanding and effectively utilizing Keyword Difficulty is crucial for successful SEO. It not only helps in selecting the right keywords to target but also provides insights into the competitiveness of the SEO landscape. 

In conclusion, mastering Keyword Difficulty is not just about understanding the metric itself but about leveraging this understanding to make strategic decisions and stay ahead of the competition in the ever-evolving landscape of SEO. Whether you’re a seasoned SEO professional or a business owner trying to improve your online visibility, a deep understanding of Keyword Difficulty is a crucial part of your SEO toolkit.


Dileep Thekkethil

With over 12 years of expertise, Dileep has carved a name for himself as a trailblazer in the SEO industry. As an acclaimed author and relentless learner, he has transformed countless websites with tailored digital marketing strategies, thanks to his profound insights and innovative approach. Dileep's passion for staying ahead of the curve is evident in his contributions to Stan Ventures and the 100+ publications that feature his groundbreaking articles on SEO and digital marketing. His dedication to knowledge-sharing has earned him widespread recognition as a go-to expert in the field. For cutting-edge SEO solutions or to delve into the mind of a true digital marketing virtuoso, connect with Dileep through the links provided below. @Mail | LinkedIn | Twitter | Facebook or View all posts by Dileep


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