Keyword research is the backbone of any successful SEO or content marketing campaign. It lays the groundwork for your content strategy and tells you which keywords to focus on.

Any business owner or marketer that wants their website to rank well in search engine results needs to start by doing thorough keyword research. And, only after they have identified what keywords to target can they start their SEO and content optimization initiatives.

And, two of the most important factors while selecting keywords are search volume and keyword difficulty. We all know that search volume refers to the number of users who searched for a keyword in a given period. However, not everyone is fully aware of what keyword difficulty is and why it matters.

In this post, we will tell you what the keyword difficulty score is and how you can use it to select the best keywords.

What is the Keyword Difficulty?

Keyword difficulty essentially means how much competition there is for that particular keyword. It measures how difficult it is for you to rank for that keyword. The higher the competition, the higher the keyword difficulty, and the more difficult it is to rank for that keyword.

Keyword difficulty is an essential metric to check while deciding which keywords to target. You shouldn’t target extremely high-competition keywords because it is challenging to rank for those terms. You also don’t want to go for extremely low-competition keywords because those usually don’t have very high search volumes.

So, it is essential to maintain a balance between search volume and keyword difficulty. Ideally, you would want to target moderate-competition or low-competition keywords with good search volumes.

What is the Keyword Difficulty Score and Why Does it Matter?

The keyword difficulty score (KDS) is the metric that you need to check to assess keyword difficulty. A lot of SEO analytics tools provide this metric, but this is not an official Google metric.

The keyword difficulty score is a percentage between one and a hundred. The higher the score, the more competitive the keyword.

Here is a broad segmentation of keywords based on the keyword difficulty scores and what they mean.

KDS Above 70% - High Difficulty Keywords

These are high difficulty keywords that have very high competition. If you intend to target these keywords, then you will need to invest in extensive SEO and link-building over a period of time. These are not the kind of keywords that you can start competing for and see immediate results.

You need to invest time and money to be able to compete for such high-difficulty keywords successfully.

KDS Between 30% and 70% - Moderate Difficulty Keywords

Trying to rank for these keywords is comparatively more realistic and profitable. These will usually have good search volumes (hence the difficulty), but not so much competition that it's not feasible.

Thus, these are your best best when it comes to selecting the right keywords as you have a realistic chance to compete for these. And, they also have a high search volume, it is worth your time to target these.

KDS Below 30% - Low Difficulty Keywords

These are the low-difficulty keywords that are the easiest to rank on. However, more often than not, these keywords don’t have high and steady search volumes. But, if you can identify low-difficulty keywords with decent search volumes, then you’ve hit the jackpot.

This is what niche businesses do. They look for niche, usually, long-tail keywords that are most relevant to their business and target those. And because these are niche keywords, the competition is not very high on the SERP.

How is the Keyword Difficulty Calculated?

The exact formula that keyword research tools use to calculate the keyword difficulty scores varies from tool to tool. However, the fundamental factors that contribute to the keyword difficulty score are the same.

As discussed earlier, keyword difficulty shows how easy or hard it is to rank for a particular keyword. So, the factors for calculating keyword difficulty are similar to the search engine ranking factors. The factors that get a page to rank higher will have keywords that are difficult to compete on.

Here are the three key aspects that are considered while calculating the keyword difficulty.

1. Page Content

This is one of the most important search engine ranking factors and hence, is also considered while calculating keyword difficulty. Pages with high-quality, relevant content rank well because the ultimate goal of search engines is to provide the users with the most useful and relevant results.

So, the content of your page should be relevant to your target audience, and the keyword that you target should also reflect the same.

The number and quality of backlinks and the number of referring domains is another important factor that contributes to a keyword’s difficulty score. Pages with diverse, high-quality backlinks rank well and hence the keywords that these pages target will be challenging to compete on.

3. Domain Authority

Domain authority is like a website’s reputation in terms of how relevant and useful its content is for a particular subject or industry. The higher the domain authority, the more a site is considered an expert content provider in the industry.

And, since websites with high domain authority rank higher for the keywords that they target, these keywords will have a high difficulty score. So, while calculating the keyword difficulty score, domain authority of websites that use that keyword is also taken into account.

How to Use Keyword Difficulty to Find the Best Keywords

Now that we have discussed what keyword difficulty is and why it matters, let’s learn how actually to use it to find SEO keywords.

Keyword difficulty is a metric that almost all keyword research tools show when you search for keywords. It may sometimes be called by a different name, differing from tool to tool.

The keyword research tool from SpyFu, for example, calls it “ranking difficulty.” This is essentially the same thing as keyword difficulty, just with a different name. The ranking/keyword difficulty could change when you adjust the country setting for a keyword search.

SpyFu Ranking Difficulty Example

Now, let’s get down to using keyword difficulty to find keywords.

Use it to Sort Through Lists of Keywords

Whenever you start your keyword research, you will come across thousands or even millions of keywords, depending on your industry. Especially if you’re searching within a broader niche, then your keyword research tool is bound to return a huge list.

This is where you can use keyword difficulty as a filter to sort through that big list of keywords. You can’t go through the entire list manually and then decide which keywords you can realistically target. It would be too time-consuming and unnecessary because you can do the filtering automatically using search filters.

You can find keywords within a particular range of keyword difficulty and filter out the rest. With some tools, you can’t select a range, but there are still filtering options like “less than” or “more than” a particular difficulty score.

Look at the following example from SpyFu, in which you can see the ranking difficulty filters on the left.

SpyFu Related Keywords Example

Once the filter is applied, you will have fewer keyword options to select from. Then, you can sort your list either by keyword difficulty or search volume and quickly scroll through the list.

So, using keyword difficulty as a filter makes it much easier and faster for you to scroll through long lists of keywords and filter out the irrelevant ones.

Use Keyword Difficulty in Tandem With Other Factors to Select Your Target Keywords

After you have shortened your list, it is time to decide which keywords you want to target for your website. This will depend on several factors and not just keyword difficulty.

We have already discussed that search volume and keyword difficulty are both crucial deciding factors for selecting the right keywords. However, the process of choosing the right target keywords is much more nuanced than that.

You can’t just rely on metrics to decide which keywords to target and also need to consider the relevance of the keyword for your business. Even if you search for keywords specific to a particular topic or your niche, it might still turn up some irrelevant results. So, you still need to do a manual check and see if each keyword is relevant to your business.


Keyword difficulty is an important metric to consider before selecting your target keywords. It tells you how easy or difficult it is for you to rank for that keyword. The higher the difficulty score, the more difficult it is to rank for that target keyword.

And, you can use the keyword difficulty score to sort and filter long keyword lists and then select the best keywords for your business.

If you have any questions about what keyword difficulty is or how to use it, feel free to comment. We’d be happy to hear from you.