Keyword research is the first and most important step in every SEO strategy, and keyword difficulty is a central metric around which every healthy keyword list is built. Knowing what exactly this metric is and how it is calculated is key to targeting an optimal mix of words and phrases that yield the best results for your website.
What Is Keyword Difficulty
In basic terms, keyword difficulty is a roughly calculated numerical measure that helps us assess how difficult it is to rank for a specific term on the search engine result page or SERP.
Keyword difficulty is not an official term defined by search engines such as Google. Rather, it is a relative criterion speculated by the conventional keyword research tools that helps us with performing competitive keyword analysis and ideation for content. Nobody knows exactly what happens inside Google’s algorithm black box including its hundreds of ranking signals and their relation to each other.
Keyword difficulty is not a unified and universal metric either. Different SEO tools use different proprietary formulas to calculate it and their results for identical phrases often vary drastically. However, they are all conceptually similar as they all look at metrics such as page authority and domain authority of the currently top-ranking pages along with the quality and quantity of their link profile and other keyword-specific data. In short, keyword difficulty is not a standalone metric that infallibly quantifies a keyword’s level of ranking difficulty. But it can be a very useful tool when combined with other criteria and the knowledge you gain from case-by-case manual analyses.
Generally, long-tail keywords that target specific niches and have lower monthly demand are way easier to rank for than fat-head keywords with high monthly.
In What Stage Should We Utilize Keyword Difficulty
Every SEO specialist has their own workflow in crafting their SEO strategy but many use the keyword difficulty score data after they have come up with their initial keyword list because keyword difficulty alone should not persuade or dissuade us from going after certain phrases. Rather, our keyword list should have its roots in our target customer profiles and their search queries/search intent. We should use the keyword difficulty metric to prioritize the resources we put into our keywords based on SEO keyword competition.
To do this, we should thoroughly analyze the quality of the top pages that currently rank for our targeted keywords and conduct a cost-benefit analysis to see which keywords yield better results with the least amount of resources put into them. This does not mean we should shy away from keywords that have fierce competition. They just go further down the list so that we can gradually improve and optimize our SEO to reach a point where we have a greater chance of ranking for them.
Manual Competitive Analysis
Since it is Google that ultimately decides who ranks for a specific query and who does not, it is always recommended that you manually analyze the results shown on the result page. Enter any of your targeted keywords in Google Search and scrutinize the top-ranking pages for the two criteria we suggest below.
Google constantly updates its algorithms to provide the users with the best user experience (UX) possible, which is presenting users with reliable, relevant, and useful content. So, by reverse-engineering the top results from the content standpoint, we can extract elements that Google deems valuable.
When scrutinizing the top results, ask yourself how well-written the content is? What is the length or word count? How is the content structured? Does it include other content formats such as pictures and videos? How do you evaluate the content in terms of recency and relevance to the search intent? If you want to outrank these pages, it is logical to assume that you should outperform them in the content aspect.
There are a lot of points of contention among SEO specialists as much of search engine optimization is shrouded in mystery. But there is one factor that almost everybody agrees on: backlinks.
Backlink profile or the number of referring domains is a metric that Google uses in order to distinguish valid and highly-authoritative sources from the rest. As it is modus operandi in the scientific community, the more authoritative sources receive more citations or “backlinks” compared to the others. This is why link building is a major component of off-page SEO and many companies leverage it to boost their authority—read more for further elaboration.
As we mentioned earlier, all SEO tools take domain and page authority into account in their keyword difficulty scoring. However, you can expand your scrutiny further by finding the domain authority and page authority of each result page using your preferred SEO tool. By simple comparison, you can evaluate how far off you are from your competitors when it comes to backlink profiles, and prioritize your keywords accordingly.