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Keyword difficulty and what really matters

Keyword difficulty is a metric that has been developed by SEO tools such as Ahrefs and SEMrush in order to help you determine how easy it would be to rank for a specific keyword. This post will discuss keyword difficulty and what really matters when you are trying to determine whether you should target a specific keyword. Often a holistic approach is key to achieving your SEO goals.

What is keyword difficulty

You might be asking yourself “what is keyword difficulty”. Keyword difficulty is an SEO metric that has been developed by SEO software companies that estimates how hard it would be to rank for that keyword. Usually it is calculated to see how difficult it would be to achieve 1st page rankings.

Keyword difficulty takes into account such metrics as domain authority, backlinks and on-page optimisation.

How does Keyword difficulty work

The keyword difficulty metric analyses the 1st page rankings. It factors into account the domain authority of the website, the link profile, how many links are pointing to the landing page and how well optimised the webpage is from an On-page optimisation perspective.

Does keyword difficulty ever get it wrong?

So, you might be thinking…is it accurate? Does the keyword difficulty metric ever get it wrong? The answer is yes, almost all the time. Please remember that Keyword Difficulty is just a metric. It always requires further investigation.

To give you an idea. SEO cape town has a keyword difficulty of 25, however, SEO in cape town has keyword difficulty of 13. Even though the search results are exactly the same for both queries. In this example the idea is that a longtail keyword would be easier to rank for. Mostly, that is correct – but not in this case.

Advantages of keyword difficulty metric

One of the best advantages of the keyword difficulty metric is that it gives you a birds eye view of things relating to that search query.  This can help when putting together a holistic SEO strategy. After further analysis you can more effectively determine the amount of blog content you require, your link profile to build backlinks and how to optimise your webpage.

Disadvantages of keyword difficulty metric

As mentioned in the paragraph about whether keyword difficulty ever gets it wrong. It is inaccurate. It always requires further investigation. It certainly isn’t something that you should rely on too heavily.

A holistic approach – like everything else in SEO is the goal. Bells and whistles don’t rank websites.

How to go about assessing keyword difficulty and how to perform a keyword difficulty audit.

The first thing I do is I start with my keyword research. I will usually use SEMrush for this to ensure the data is as accurate as possible. Once I have a list of keywords and suitable variations, I will turn to Google. Using the Moz Bar and SEMrush I will evaluate the search results even further. I will also use Screaming Frog from time-to-time. 

With each search query I type into Google, I will look at the amount of links to the landing page, the Domain Authority, the Page Authority and the actual landing page to view all the content on it. This will give me a more indepth look at the possibility of ranking the website.

Further analysis into the actual profile of the backlinks will tell me if they are using Web 2.0s, PBN’s, spammy links, guest posts etc. I will also review the traffic coming to those pages to see how “credible” the website is. Further analysis will also allow me to do a word count on the website to see how many words are on each webpage. I will also use Screaming Frog to check for duplicate content and if anything is missing such as Meta tags and such things. I will also view the amount of blog pages on the website and how much content is on each word. For example if the competitors only have 10 posts at 500 words each, 50 posts with 2500 words would increase my topical relevance on the subject matter.

How you should approach keyword difficulty

In a word “holistically”. You need to analyse the search results, evaluate all the data in the SEO tools and lastly, evaluate the keyword through the lens of the searcher. This will help you understand the keywords “intent”. For example “buy sneakers” have commercial intent. Or “which medical insurance is the best” has informational intent. This will also help you approach the difficult keyword.

The most important variables when ranking difficult keywords

There are many different variables to assess before you decide you would like to target difficult keywords. The may be the state of your site, the search volume of a query and the list tends to get endless.


The amount of time it would take to rank from that keyword. Would it be 12 months of work or would it be 24 months to achieve the rankings. The other thing to keep in mind is the goal posts are always moving. With constant algorithm updates, your competitors are always fighting for that top stop to maintain their top spot. Content will keep on being generated and links will continue to be built.

The SEOs Skill

The overall skill of the SEO would be able to determine whether the keywords are worth pursuing. A novice might have a hard time ranking difficult keywords, but a veteran in the SEO industry may find it is easy. Skills and experience matter in SEO.


As mentioned above, the SEOs experience matters. Knowing the processes and procedures necessary to achieve a desired result are of the utmost importance. This saves not only time but the clients money as well. I am sure you have come to realise that SEO is an expensive endeavour. If someone has ranked 1000s of websites with a 100% success rate, it would be hard to ignore their skills and expertise.


As I mentioned in the above sections regarding skills and experience, expertise also matters. It is worth noting that all three variables are linked. The competency of the SEO is also important. The SEO needs to have the knowledge and ability to rank the difficult keyword successfully and efficiently. Otherwise the SEO will just be wasting resources. As more time goes on, it starts costing the business more money in the form of opportunity cost. 

Overall cost

The overall cost of the campaign also needs to be afforded by the client that needs their website ranked. If the overall cost is unaffordable, then there is no point in attempting the campaign. The campaign may work out at a later stage when the other SEO efforts have been successful.

ROI of running that word down

This ROI concept follows on from the overall cost of a campaign. If the client can afford the service over the estimated time period and can yield a substantial return on investment, it would seem like the perfect opportunity to increase the company’s revenue.

The keyword search volume

The keyword search volume also has an impact on the keyword difficulty. For example, a keyword or search query  with 300 searches a month for a local keyword would be significantly easier than ranking for a single global term with 100000 searches a month. It may be better to hunt down the lower volume keywords first before going after the very difficult ones.

Well, there you have it. I hope that has helped you understand keyword difficulty and how you should approach it. What is important when researching keywords. If you are in need of SEO services please contact me in order to discuss how I can improve your rankings.