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, that alone doesn't tell you about the competitive field for that keyword search or how much work goes into showing up on related SERPs. That's why good keyword research includes factors like a keyword difficulty score. We see it as a way to prioritize your efforts.

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.

Why Is Keyword Difficulty Important for SEO?

Doing SEO keyword research relies on fast answers to keep up with hundreds of moving parts. Keyword difficulty fits that bill, giving SEOs a quick snapshot of competition levels, search volume, and SERP contenders--all at a glance. It's a key part of SEO prep work, helping to flag outlier keywords and signal the need for further digging.

Keyword difficulty is important to SEO because of how much up-front work goes into planning and developing content to target a keyword. Keyword difficulty allows content teams to understand the amount of work it might take to rank for a keyword, long before they fully dive in.

In fact, keyword difficulty is so important to SEO that the most trusted keyword tools include it in their key metrics. The metric exists solely for SEO purposes, giving content creators a consistent way to gauge the keyword against other terms for content planning, work prioritization, and potentially deeper research.

Content Planning

Keyword difficulty helps SEOs target keywords that are relevant to their business but diverse in their competition levels. This spreads out your presence on search results pages and evens out your workload.

Having that insight also supports you in setting realistic goals. It's important while planning your content approach that you understand how much effort to dedicate to your smaller projects like research, outlining, article creation, and promotional support. Keyword difficulty acts as an objective reminder of where to expect to rank.

Further, it's not just whether ranking is within reach, but also how much time it will take. Don't write off high-difficulty keywords. Change your mindset to understand that you won't crack the top 10 immediately, but you could make the top 30 within weeks. And with nurturing and link building, you could reach that first page goal, but just at a slower pace than you would with lower-difficulty terms.


One of the most important ways to use keyword difficulty in SEO is to prioritize your work. We found that an effective approach is to break content-writing projects into easy, medium, and hard steps. That might mean that you fit some easy work when you have 20 minutes between meetings. Your medium-effort work takes a little more scheduling, and you would probably set aside a day for hard-level work.

It's similar with prioritizing your work. Keyword difficulty scores can guide you to tackle one cluster of keywords over another set. If you can quickly publish work on easier terms, this makes the best use of your time. You will be gaining traction on those keywords while you invest more effort into the difficult ones.

Potentially Deeper Research

This is where outlier scores come in. A keyword with an unexpectedly low or high difficulty score should trigger you to dig in a little more. Keyword difficulty is important to SEO managers as a signal that their original plan might need to be adjusted.

Consider a content creator who is about to target "college application guide" as part of a bigger plan. If that keyword difficulty score is much lower than expected, it might feel like a shot of luck, but it should also cause them to ask why the term isn't as competitive as they thought. It could end up being a lot of work with very little payoff. In short, keyword difficulty is helpful for people who want to gut check their choices.

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.

Keyword Difficulty 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.

Keyword Difficulty 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.

Keyword Difficulty 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 many businesses do with targeted content. They look for niche, long-tail keywords that are most relevant to their business and craft content around those. Long-tail keywords are more specific to the user's search, so they are likely to have higher conversion rates. They usually have lower difficulty scores and less competition on the search engine results page (SERP), making them easier to rank for compared to broad keywords.

In contrast, targeting shorter and commonly used keywords can result in a lot of competition, making it harder for a website to rank and get traffic. Creating content with long tail keywords in mind is a more efficient and effective way to attract potential customers.

How is Keyword Difficulty Measured?

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. Quality of the Content

This is one of the most important search engine ranking factors and hence, is also considered while calculating keyword difficulty.

Without good content, there's little chance of ranking for your target keyword. However, even if your content is well-written and informative, it may not be enough to rank. It's important to ensure that your content aligns with the user's search intent, as this can significantly impact your ability to rank. That's where relevance plays such a big part.

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.

The number and quality of backlinks and the number of referring domains is another important factor that contributes to a keyword’s difficulty score.

Having a strong backlink profile can indicate to search engines that your content is trustworthy and authoritative, making it more likely to rank higher. If your competitors have an established backlink profile, it can be much more challenging to outrank them for a specific keyword. However, building and maintaining a strong backlink profile can help you stay competitive in the long run.

Overall, pages with diverse, high-quality backlinks rank well, so 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.

We don't often acknowledge that it takes time for newer domains to establish authority. As a new site with low authority, it can be more difficult to show search engines that your content is better and more reliable than the competition. Then, if your main competitors for a keyword are well established with high authority, it will be even harder to unseat them from the top spots.

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.

The best way to get past this is to adopt patience and keep plugging away at making authoritative content. It should be thorough, well-written, helpful, and clear.

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 Keyword Difficulty but sometimes shows it shortened to “difficulty.” The ranking/keyword difficulty could change when you adjust the country setting for a keyword search.

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  difficulty filters on the left and the score for each keyword in the list.

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.

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 ones that won't match your needs for time allotment or other resources.

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.