Keyword research sets the tone for the success of your blog’s SEO.
There are many considerations when looking for the right keywords, but the big question is this:
What’s the difficulty of ranking on the first page of SERPs for a keyword?
That’s what we will solve in this article.
We’ll discuss the concept of keyword difficulty, how to calculate it, and the best tools for the job.
The Ultimate Guide To Keyword Difficulty
- 1. What is Keyword Difficulty?
- 2. How Should You Interpret Keyword Difficulty
- 3. How Do Tools Calculate Keyword Difficulty Anyway?
- 4. Best Keyword Difficulty Tools
- 4.1 Long Tail Pro
- 4.2 KWFinder
- 4.3 Moz Keyword Explorer
- 4.4 Ahrefs
- 4.5 SEMrush Keyword Difficulty Tool
- 5. Verifying Keyword Difficulty Using SERPs
- 5.1 Using Ahrefs To Find Outlier Pages
- 5.2 Checking Your Competitors’ Backlink Data
- 5.3 Using MozBar To Do Research Straight from SERPs
- 6. So, Does Keyword Difficulty Matter?
What is Keyword Difficulty?
Keyword difficulty is used to determine how easy or tough a keyword would be to rank for in search engines.
In most SEO tools, keyword difficulty is measured as a score between 1 to 100, 100 being the most difficult.
Below is a visual representation of keyword difficulty according to Mangools’ KWFinder:
On their scale, keywords with a difficulty score of 50 and above are hard to compete against.
Keywords in the 10s or 20s, on the other hand, provide better ranking odds for the average website.
The takeaway here is simple, really.
To increase your chances of ranking on top of organic search, go for keywords with low difficulty scores.
These are often long-tail keywords, which have three or more terms.
Some examples are“what are SEO keywords,” “how to do keyword research,” and “best keyword research tools.”
Why long-tail keywords?
Despite the low search volume of some long-tail keywords, they are still worth going after.
Remember, you can always optimize a single piece of content for multiple keywords and benefit from their cumulative traffic potential. Not to mention that long-tail keywords have more specific user intent.
Before we get technical, there’s one thing you need to know about keyword difficulty:
It doesn’t tell you the whole story!
Keyword difficulty is a very good metric to help you identify keywords you should target for your blog.
However, you shouldn’t simply look at keyword difficulty ratings and call it a day. To make the best decisions for your blog, you need to know how to look past the numbers.
That’s why this next section is very important.
How Should You Interpret Keyword Difficulty?
The thing about keyword difficulty is, it’s calculated differently between keyword research tools. Hence, there’s no one way to interpret it.
You should also consider your own website’s ranking potential when selecting a keyword difficulty range that’s viable to you.
For example, Moz’s difficulty score looks into the page authority and domain authority of first-page results, among other factors.
However, even with this definition, Rand Fishkin admits to variation in how keyword difficulty scores should be interpreted:
How Do Tools Calculate Keyword Difficulty Anyway?
To understand how different tools calculate keyword difficulty, let’s use this formula by Long Tail Pro four years ago:
“Keyword Competitiveness (KC) = Page Authority (PA) +/- Page Title +/- Keywords in Domain +/- Length of Domain”
In the formula, there are four different factors involved:
Each site starts with a Page Authority number, which is where the KC number begins.
Page Authority is essentially a number introduced by Moz.com that tells you how “authoritative” a certain page is. It takes into account metrics like site age, domain authority, juice page links, social signals, and so on.
If the target keyword is in the page’s title, this is a good relevancy signal to search engines.
It’s not as powerful as it once was as a ranking factor. Still, it’s up there as one of the 17 most prominent ones according to SEMrush:
If lots of authoritative pages ranking in Google don’t have the keyword in their titles, keyword competitiveness goes down.
There’s a possibility that you’ll outrank these authoritative pages if you target the exact keyword in your page title.
Keywords in Domain
Just like with the page title, it used to be a big deal to have keywords in the domain name.
But since brandable domains have become so important, exact or partial match keyword domain names have become less important.
Long Tail Pro’s KC calculation adjusts the score down for domains that are too long.
Because long domain names often look spammy and unnatural, especially if they have keywords stuffed in them.
Again, this is just how Long Tail Pro used to calculate keyword difficulty.
Other similar tools may include or exclude other factors, which lead to different results.
As you can see, some of the variables Long Tail Pro uses are no longer relevant.
Keep in mind that the KC formula equation was made public in 2015. The tool has recalibrated its formula a year after to reflect the algorithm changes.
Here’s a visual representation of Long Tail Pro’s keyword competitiveness score and the possibility of ranking high on SERPs:
In any case, the point I’m trying to make by explaining how keyword difficulty can be calculated is this:
Don’t just rely on the KD provided to you.
When looking at keyword difficulty, there are external and internal factors you need to take into account.
Sadly, not all of these variables are factored in by the keyword research tool you’re using.
To be sure, use the KD as a barometer to determine the keywords to optimize.
Then, examine the SERPs of the low-competition keyword to help you decide if it’ll be easy to rank for these keywords or not!
We’ll see how to do this in a bit.
In the meantime, let’s talk about the tools that make checking keyword difficulty a walk in the park.
Best Keyword Difficulty Tools
I’ve covered the best keyword research tools in the market before, so you may want to check it out first. It outlines not only the tools that check keyword difficulty, but also how they can generate profitable keyword ideas.
With that out of the way, below are the best tools on the internet that show precise keyword difficulty ratings:
1. Long Tail Pro
Long Tail Pro is an impressive keyword research tool that you can use to effortlessly find low competition keywords.
The tool is specifically built for people doing search engine optimization as opposed to people running paid ads.
Sure, advertisers can still use it to find low-competition keywords for paid search. However, they won’t be able to take full advantage of Long Tail Pro’s comprehensive toolset.
With Long Tail Pro, you’ll easily find keyword ideas in bulk based on your desired seed keywords.
Apart from returning several related keywords, the tool will also show you each keyword’s:
- Monthly search volume
- Keyword competitiveness
- Number of words
- Average advertiser bid
- Estimated rank value
You can also export your keywords for later use.
Now, let’s quickly see how to find long-tail keywords using Long Tail Pro.
To get started, the first step is to enter your seed keyword and click ‘Retrieve.’
LTP will now generate for you hundreds of related keywords you could target on your blog.
Take note that you can also set the number of suggestions per seed keyword. For now, let’s keep it at “20” to make Long Tail Pro pull in the necessary data faster.
Look at the screenshot below as an example — I just entered “best running shoes” as my seed keyword:
Your seed keywords could come from forums, Google Autocomplete suggestions, and Q&A sites like Quora. If you want, you may also pluck seed keywords from Amazon, other sites, and even alternate keyword research tools.
Other than long-tail keyword suggestions, Long Tail Pro also includes valuable keyword metrics for your research.
Of course, each keyword’s keyword difficulty or “Average Keyword Competitiveness” is also included.
Below are the keyword difficulty scores I got from Long Tail Pro:
You can also sort the results according to Average Keyword Competitiveness. This lets you immediately find the easiest long-tail keyword targets for organic SERP rankings.
As you can see, I already have a few long-tail keywords that are potentially not hard to rank for.
Getting distracted by a bunch of numbers? By clicking ‘Customize,’ you can choose which metrics to display and hide on the results page.
Once you’re fully satisfied with the results, use the ‘Export’ button to download a copy of the selected keywords. They will be saved as a CSV file, which can be opened by spreadsheet applications like Excel or Google Sheets.
KWFinder is one of the best and modern keyword research tools in the market. It has everything you need to find the best keywords based on difficulty.
To use KWFinder, fill in your seed keyword and adjust the other search parameters as you see fit. This includes your target location and language.
If you’d rather spy on the keyword strategy of a competitor, switch to the ‘Search by Domain’ tab.
Instead of a seed keyword, you begin your search by providing the domain or URL of your competitor.
I did a more in-depth exploration of KWFinder’s features in a previous post. Check it out and claim your 20% discount now — exclusive to Master Blogging readers!
To make our test fair and unbiased, let’s use the same seed keyword on KWFinder.
Here’s what you’ll see when you enter “best running shoes”:
In my opinion, KWFinder has one of the best user interfaces in the industry.
What I like most about KWFinder are the colorful data visualizations and presentation.
Keywords are color-coded according to difficulty, which makes it easier to spot low-competition keywords. They also provide a small SERP overview and a detailed traffic pattern for the past years.
With the free plan, you will be able to perform three keyword research and three SERP lookups per day. Each free search is capable of fetching up to 50 related keyword suggestions.
To unlock the full features of KWFinder, you’ll have to upgrade to one of their paid plans.
Looking at the keyword suggestions, here are the keyword difficulty ratings for each idea:
For more keyword ideas, you can switch your search from “Related Keywords” to “Autocomplete.” Simply click on the ‘Autocomplete’ button on the upper-right corner of the keywords list.
Still not getting the keyword suggestions you want?
In most cases, you need to perform extra steps to remove keyword ideas you don’t need.
Let’s assume I’m working on an Amazon affiliate website. That means I don’t need keywords with terms like Target, Walmart, or GNC.
We can easily get them off the keyword suggestions using filters.
Simply enable the ‘Filter’ toggle and enter the terms you want to weed out into the “Excluded keywords” field.
To make sure the results only contain long-tail keywords, set the minimum number of words to three. You can adjust this value in the “Number of words” section.
This may be optional, but it can help you filter out some of the very competitive, less useful results.
From my search, I was able to pick a few less competitive keywords, judging by their KD:
- running shoes for women
- best trail running shoes
- most comfortable running shoes
- cheap running shoes
You can also use KWFinder to find some sweet informational articles that your audience is looking for.
These types of content help build your brand, build links as well as to share some link juice to your money articles.
First, let’s enter “running shoes” as our seed keyword.
Instead of looking at the “Related Keywords” or “Autocomplete” tab, simply click on the “Questions” tab.
You may notice that the difficulty scores are not shown for to some of the keywords.
Don’t worry — just click on the magnifying glass icon to get the updated keyword difficulty in a second.
The “Questions” tab can also be used to find long-tail keywords with commercial intent.
For instance, if I enter “best running shoes,” I’ll get a bunch of valuable results from the “Questions” tab like:
- What’s the best running shoes for bad knees
- What are best running shoes for plantar fasciitis
- What’s the best running shoes to buy
Just like with Long Tail Pro, you can also download a copy of your keywords list for future use. You may also add it to a list, which will be saved directly within KWFinder.
Either can be done by clicking on the ‘Export’ or ‘Add to list’ button under the keyword results.
3. Moz Keyword Explorer
If you’ve been in the SEO circle for some time now, you’ve probably heard someone mention Moz.
It has one of the most elaborate lineups of SEO tools in the industry.
Yes, it includes a full-blown keyword research tool.
Moz Keyword Explorer uses clickstream data, which is gathered through clickstream analysis — the flow of clicks web users make. It also assimilates data from the Google Keyword Planner, like the average search ranges per month and so on.
To use the Moz Keyword Explorer, enter a seed keyword and click the search button — it’s that easy.
Similar to the previous tools, you can also get keyword suggestions by entering a domain or URL. Just select “root domain,” “subdomain,” or “exact page” from the drop-down menu on the left.
Here’s what I got when I searched for “best running shoes” on Moz Keyword Explorer:
One thing I love about Moz is how they present their keyword data. It’s contemporary, visually attractive, and clear-cut – you won’t spend a long time figuring it out.
You’ll also notice that, apart from usual metrics like keyword difficulty and search volume, Moz shows a couple more numbers.
I’m talking about the “Organic CTR” and “Priority” scores for your seed keyword.
“Organic CTR” measures the likelihood of users to click on organic results. It factors in the presence of featured snippets and ads that inevitably steal attention away from organic listings.
“Priority,” on the other hand, is a metric that takes in everything else to measure a keyword’s overall importance. It looks at the keyword’s search volume, organic CTR, and keyword difficulty to calculate its score.
Now — let’s look at the other keyword ideas Moz has in store for us.
Clicking on the ‘See all suggestions’ link, you’ll see a bunch of keyword suggestions conceived from your seed keyword:
Users normally get up to 1,000 keyword ideas from the Moz Keyword Explorer.
Here’s a peek at the keyword suggestions I got for “best running shoes”:
Moz also allows you to filter your search and decide what and what not to include. You can also create keyword groups to reduce visual clutter and make your priority keywords easier to spot.
At the very least, set your preferred keyword traffic range to filter out irrelevant results.
Below are the results I got when I selected the “are questions” option:
For specific terms to include or exclude, create an advanced filter while selecting the right option from the drop-down menu.
Once you’re satisfied with your keywords, you can also export them by clicking the ‘Export’ button.
Ahrefs is one of the best SEO tools out there, and it’s become incredibly popular over the years.
Like Moz, Ahrefs is an all-around platform that offers domain explorer, content explorer, rank tracker, site auditing tool, and more.
In terms of digging up those super-low competition keywords, Ahrefs also has the right tools for the job.
The Keywords Explorer interface combines complex data with eye-catching visuals — without getting you overwhelmed. Its difficulty score is based on the number of links to Google’s top 10 pages.
To get started with Ahrefs Keyword Explorer, log into your Ahrefs account and navigate to the “Keyword Explorer” tab.
There, you can start typing in the seed keywords you want to use in your search. You can also select the search platform you want to target — from Google to foreign search engines like Seznam.
So, how did Ahrefs evaluate the difficulty of our example keyword “best running shoes”?
Let’s take a look at Keyword Explorer’s analysis, shall we?
Apart from the actual keyword difficulty score, Ahrefs also threw in a hot tip right off the bat.
It predicts that you need at least 47 referring domains to rank on Google’s first page for our keyword.
This value is calculated from the number of backlinks that the top 10 results already have in their link profile.
Go ahead and scroll down a bit to see the keyword suggestions, which is actually what we’re after:
As you can see on the screenshot, we sure have a lot of keywords to analyze — ranging from keywords that:
- Have the same term
- Pertain to questions
- Top domains also rank for
- Are newly discovered
For the sake of this guide, we’re going to be focusing more on the “having the same terms” section. This will help you get lots of LSI keyword ideas.
We have a total of 21,142 keywords to look at in this section. Click on the ‘View all 21,142’ link to check them all out.
Like the other SEO tools we mentioned here, Ahrefs also allows you to filter the results. That’ll make it easier for you to find those jaw-dropping, long-tail keywords.
As much as I love KWFinder’s filtering options, you have to admire the accessibility of Ahrefs’ filter tool.
As shown above, you can filter by search volume, keyword difficulty, number of words, and SERP features. Of course, you can also set to include or exclude keywords that contain specific terms.
Let’s filter the results to only show keywords with 1,000 monthly searches and less with a maximum difficulty of 30.
And here’s what we’re now left with:
We’re now left with a total of 1,514 low-competition keywords — much narrower than the pool of 21,142 keywords earlier.
I was able to spot a few good ones immediately:
- best running shoes for knee pain
- best lightweight running shoes
- best affordable running shoes
- best under armor running shoes
Under the “Keyword Ideas” menu, click on the ‘Questions’ tab to see relevant questions your audience is asking.
5. SEMrush Keyword Difficulty
Unless you’re new in the industry, you’ve undeniably heard of SEMrush and maybe even tried it at some point.
SEMrush is another all-in-one SEO and marketing analytics tool you can use for keyword research purposes. It even has a tool dedicated to checking the difficulty scores of potential keywords.
Let me show you how it works.
After logging into your account, expand the “Keyword Analytics” sub-menu and click ‘Keyword Difficulty.’ This will take you to a page where you enter your keywords and click one button to perform the analysis.
Wait a minute — what if you don’t have any keyword ideas to check?
The good news is, SEMrush also comes equipped with a top-tier keyword research tool.
This can be accessed by heading to the ‘Keyword Magic Tool’ from the “Keyword Analytics” sub-menu.
When fully loaded, the next steps should be fairly straightforward.
On the “Enter keyword” field, type in the seed keyword you want to use and click ‘Search.’
If you’re curious about the “New list” drop-down menu, I’ve explained it along with everything else in a previous post. Learn more by reading my ultimate SEMrush review for bloggers.
It’s worth noting that SEMrush has been in the industry for more than a decade now.
As such, their keyword research tool has been a solid favorite of many affiliate marketers, bloggers, and SEOs for years.
Plugging in “best running shoes,” here are the keyword suggestions that the Keyword Magic tool returned to me:
Visually speaking, the interface is clean and well organized. It also gives a quick view of the pertinent metrics for each keyword suggestion, like:
- SERP features
With these metrics, it won’t be difficult for you to find the low-competition keywords you’re looking for.
If you need more data, you may want to visit the “Keyword Overview” page.
Just enter your target keyword in the main search bar and click ‘Search.’ Be sure to select “Keyword Overview” on the drop-down menu to the left as you do so.
SEMrush should supply you with more insights along with phrase match and related keywords:
Click on the ‘View full report’ button to reveal the keyword suggestions and their KD scores.
At this point, we should now have enough keyword suggestions for the Keyword Difficulty tool.
Up to 100 keywords can be evaluated at a time, but let’s start nice and easy with just five.
Here are the keywords I’ve entered:
- running shoes
- best running shoes
- shoes for running
- best running shoes for women
- best shoes for running
Well, have a look for yourself:
In the SERP Features section, you can easily see which features — if any — are triggered on your keywords’ results pages.
These details will help you to determine more opportunities of getting more organic traffic. Just consider the relevance of each SERP feature for your website before you start optimizing for them.
Lastly, you can also export the result by clicking the ‘Export’ button.
Verifying Keyword Difficulty Using SERPs
Let’s say you already have a list of low-hanging fruit keywords using your preferred keyword research tool.
Does that mean you’re ready to optimize for them on your blog?
As mentioned earlier, the keyword difficulty score only tells you half of the story.
To find out the other half, you have to get your hands dirty and scout out the competition yourself.
Yes — that means inspecting the top 10 organic pages for your keyword.
Analyzing each page using different SEO metrics will help you uncover information that you won’t see just by looking at the keyword difficulty.
For instance, let’s say you have a keyword with a difficulty score of 50 and above. In which case, tools like Ahrefs may suggest building over a hundred links to rank on Google’s first page.
Seems reasonable, right?
If you check the top 10 results, you may find a domain or two with far fewer backlinks than the rest.
Allow me to elaborate with an example.
Using Ahrefs to find “outlier” pages
Ahrefs is one of the most popular SEO tools and SEMrush alternatives online. It also has one of the most trusted keyword difficulty scoring systems, so let’s put that to the test.
Entering “how to write a blog post” on the search bar reveals that it has a KD score of 57.
Below this is Ahrefs clearly stating that you’ll need 113 referring domains to rank on the first page.
However, when you look at the SERP overview, things get a bit more interesting.
The 4th organic listing, despite having less linking domains, ranks higher than the 5th and 6th pages.
Both of which have 95 and 147 referring domains, respectively — higher than the 4th page’s 28.
Also, the 7th organic page, despite having only 22 referring domains, still ranks on the first page.
So as valuable as backlinks are for SEO, it doesn’t really show you the whole picture.
You may be thinking, “those pages must have higher domain ratings than the rest.”
Although each of these websites’ DR is within the same range, observe the 2nd organic page’s DR metric.
Yep — it has the lowest of the top organic results.
Nevertheless, it’s still ranking pretty high up there.
Taking all factors into consideration, the 4th page from OptinMonster has the lowest metrics of the top organic results.
If these numbers paint the whole picture, then why is OptinMonster ahead of the 5th, 6th, and 7th pages?
That makes the post the outlier of the SERP. So, it’s your duty to understand what makes this post works.
Check it out and look at its on-page elements, such as:
- The content’s word count
- Visual content (infographics, videos, animations, and so on)
- Internal and outbound links
- Keyword placement
- LSI keywords
- Meta data
- Page loading speed
- Overall website’s design
By writing quality content that matches the top pages, you can get a fighting chance to reach Google’s first page. Just don’t reach too far and make sure your potential competitors’ domain ratings are in the same ballpark as yours.
Checking your competitors’ backlink data
Finally, check your would-be competitors’ backlink profiles.
Clicking on the value under the “Domains” column will take you to the referring domains page.
On the “Link type” drop-down menu, select “Dofollow” to display links that affect the page’s SEO rankings. You will see that OptinMonster’s page has links from very authoritative sites.
At the end of the day, it’s not about the quantity of backlinks — it’s more about the quality.
That’s why keyword difficulty ratings from tools that rely on backlink count can be unreliable.
On your end, you have to determine whether or not you can acquire backlinks from the same sites. If not, find alternative sites with comparable domain authorities.
MozBar is a free Chrome extension made by Moz that lets you extract valuable information from SERPs for your keywords.
To use MozBar, all you need is a Moz account — just sign up, and you should be good to go.
Once you have the MozBar working, go to Google and search for your target keyword.
You should spot a couple of new things on the SERP. In addition to the organic listings, the MozBar extension also displays the number of backlinks for each page.
Let’s do something different this time and search for “how to write a blog post”:
The information is limited given that you’re not subscribed to the paid version of Moz, but this should do.
To help you compare the results much better, export the results into a CSV file. You can do this by clicking the ‘Export SERP Analysis to CSV’ button on the MozBar.
After a few formatting changes, this is what your CSV file may look like:
To analyze the results, you need to check the following: “Page Authority, Domain Authority, and Backlinks.“
According to the data, ThemeIsle has the lowest combined PA/DA out of the top pages for the keyword.
In fact, it has way fewer links compared to the top-ranking domains, namely HubSpot and WordStream.
That means ThemeIsle must be doing something special to make its way into Google’s first page.
Going back to the SERP, click on ThemeIsle’s page and run the MozBar. From there, click on the ‘Page Analysis’ button to get a good look at the page’s on-page elements.
Some of the elements you can inspect are the page’s meta description, keywords, image alt text tags, and so on. You can access more information like their page load time, DA, PA, and markup elements by navigating to different tabs.
Using MozBar is a good alternative to a keyword research tool if you don’t have the cash for premium ones.
Even if you have a paid keyword tool, adding MozBar should help you validate your keyword choices even further!
So, Does Keyword Difficulty Matter?
Short answer: heck yeah!
Longer answer: At best, keyword difficulty is a good measure to help you narrow down your target keyword pool.
Once you’ve extracted the keywords based on keyword difficulty, the next step is to manually examine the top 10 results. This will help you understand the kind of content you need along with the on-page elements you should include.
If you have any questions or suggestions based on what you read, feel free to leave a comment below. I’m looking forward to your input!