Keyword Difficulty in digital marketing 2020

keyword difficulty in digital marketing

Keyword Difficulty as a standalone metric can be misleading. I mean, how can a one to three digit number truly quantify how hard it’s going to be to rank in Google? Now, despite its shortcomings, it’s actually a super insightful metric if you understand how it works and how Google chooses which pages to rank. So today, I’m going to break down this mysterious metric, answer some frequently asked questions, and of course, I’ll show you how to tell the difference between a keyword trap and a keyword opportunity. Stay tuned.

If you’re unfamiliar with Keyword Difficulty, it’s basically a numerical representation of how hard it’ll be to rank in Google for a search query. Now, I want you to think about this for a second. Google uses hundreds of ranking signals, some that have been confirmed, some that have been “verified” through third party studies, and then there are ones that SEOs have concluded based on experience, observation or gut feelings. So to expect a third party with zero association to Google to somehow decrypt 200 some-odd signals and compute a quote-unquote “accurate” metric is unrealistic and perhaps impossible. After all, most of these so-called “ranking factors,” are speculation and there are others that can’t even be looked at independently.

And for that reason, you’ll notice that keyword difficulty will differ counting on the keyword research tool you’re using. In fact, I pulled up these three keywords in four different keyword research tools and you’ll see how vastly different the difficulty scores are.  Or that one tool is better at predicting ranking difficulty than another? Not at all. Now, I can’t speak on behalf of other tools because a) I don’t know how they calculate KD; and

b) I don’t really care how they calculate it because Ahrefs is the only SEO tool with keyword difficulty scores that I’ve used consistently for the past five and a half years. So I’ll be talking about how we calculate Keyword Difficulty at Ahrefs, outline some of the shortcomings for all tools, including ours, and then we’ll piece it altogether so you can find keyword opportunities for your site. So, how does Ahrefs calculate Keyword Difficulty? Simply put, we take a weighted average of the number of referring domains pointing at the top 10 pages. So this suggests that if a keyword features a high KD, then the ranking pages likely have many links pointing at them. In contrast, low KD scores tell us that the highest ranking pages do not have many links. Now, since ranking for keywords usually relies on back links, KD acts as a good proxy to ranking difficulty.

But there are other factors we have to consider. So let’s walk through these factors and unpack them with practical examples. And I promise that by understanding these fundamental concepts, it’ll help you to utilize Keyword Difficulty scores more effectively. The first thing to consider is search intent. Search intent means the rationale behind a searcher’s query. And generally speaking, these can be broken down into four groups. Informational, commercial investigation ,navigational, and transactional. Informational queries are ones where a searcher is looking for information about a topic.

These are usually queries that contain words like “how,” “what,” and “who.” So something like “what is protein powder?”would be informational in nature. Commercial investigation queries are ones that show that the searcher is in the market for a specific product or service but has yet to make a purchasing decision. So they’re often looking for comparisons to help solve their problem. And these queries often include keyword modifiers like “best,” “vs.” and “review.” So “best protein powder” would be an example of this. Navigational queries are when the searcher is looking for a specific website. 

Finally are transactional queries, which indicate that the searcher is looking to make a purchase. So “buy protein powder” would fit in this group. Now, keyword modifiers like the ones I’ve mentioned won’t always be in the query. So the way to identify search intent is to look at the SERP. For example, looking at the top 10 pages for the query “roasting coffee beans” you’ll see that the top 10 pages are clearly informational. The second thing to consider is website authority. At Ahrefs, we have a metric called Domain Rating, which represents the overall strength of a website’s back link profile. And while the majority of SEOs believe that Google uses some kind of domain level metric in their ranking algorithm, John Mueller has publicly said they don’t.

Now, since our Keyword Difficulty metric doesn’t take website authority under consideration , interpreting KD will depend upon what you think . But for arguments sake, let’s use some examples of queries with a low difficulty score, where the ranking pages are from highly authoritative websites. So there are two things we need to talk about here. The first is brand equity. There are certain queries where big brands dominate the SERP. And to be frank, there’s not much you can do about it unless you’re in the same playing field. For example, a transactional query like “media storage” has a KD of 3. But if you scroll down to the SERP, you’ll see that they’re dominated by household names like Home Depot, Amazon, Wayfair, and Walmart. Now, queries like these aren’t necessarily about page-level links. It likely comes down to where people actually shop. And those places are usually big brands. So we’re left with this chicken or the egg scenario.

Are these sites ranking due to brand? Or is it due to website authority as we measure using Domain Rating? Or could it’s expertise, authoritativeness, and trustworthiness aka. EAT? What about CTR or local factors? Maybe it is a combination of many? Or are a number of this stuff hooked in to the other? and that we haven’t even talked about on-page and technical SEO factors like facets, page speed, and more. Again, this makes KD a troublesome metric to calculate accurately because manual assessment may be a prerequisite. And even then, we’re still hypothesizing. Now, there are tons of transactional queries that look almost like this, especially for head terms. So once you see an identical SERP, you would like to require KD with a grain of salt and assess all factors manually case-by-case. The second thing we’d like to debate is that Keyword Difficulty and Domain Rating are relative metrics.

Let’s take a glance at an informational query, where brand equity might not play as big of a task . this question features a low KD, but watching the SERP, you will see that each one of the ranking pages have high Domain Ratings, aka. high website authority. So is that this KD score truly representative of ranking difficulty? the solution is yes and no. Keyword Difficulty goes to be relative to the web site you’re trying to rank. So while the ranking domains mostly have DR values within the 70s and 80s, a private finance site with a DR 95 might think a KD of 5 is really an overestimation because they’d probably be ready to rank for this question with ease. Whereas a private finance site with a DR15 would think it’s too low which they have been duped by the problem value. Now, if you’ve got a so-called “weaker” site compared to those big brands, do not feel bad. Pages on a coffee authority site can still out perform high DR sites. which usually comes right down to subsequent consideration which is that the number of quality links pointing at a page. While KD takes under consideration the number of links, it doesn’t account for quality.

To assess quality, you’d need to take under consideration topical relevance of the linking domain and page, the link authority from the referring page, the amount of external links on the referring page, the amount of internal links pointing at the referring page, and therefore the authority of these pages. So we keep things simple and consistent by estimating the typical number of referring domains pointing at the highest 10 pages. and that we also provide an estimate of the amount of unique linking domains you will need so as to rank within the top 10. So for that reason, it is often worth manually watching the rear link profiles of top ranking pages because quantity isn’t everything. Now, these are a number of the explanations why no tool can calculate KD accurately.

 And as I’ve mentioned before, ranking difficulty is relative supported the web site you’re trying to rank and its competitors. In fact, other things that i have never even touched on include content quality, technical factors like page speed and therefore the use of HTTPS, and user signals like dwell time, if that’s even a ranking consideration. So, while Keyword Difficulty as a stand alone metric is way from perfect, there’s actually plenty of utility you’ll get from it once you use it supported your understanding of the metric. the primary way is to seek out low-competition topics supported search intent.

If you remember before I showed you the instance of the transactional query “media storage,” where it decreased to mostly brand, on-page, and technical factors. And while many transactional queries don’t seem to put the maximum amount weight on links, informational and commercial investigation queries often do, which happens to be what keyword difficulty is made around. So to seek out a reliable set of low-competition topics, attend Keywords Explorer and look for a broad query associated with your niche. So I’ll look for “makeup.” Next, I’ll attend the Questions report, which are all getting to be informational queries.

Finally, I’ll set a KD filter with a maximum value of 5, assuming that’s low in my books. And now you’ll see topics like “how to sanitize makeup,” and “how to use a makeup sponge.” And if I click the SERP button, you will see that:

a) it’s indeed an informational query;

b) a few of top ranking pages do not have any links; and

c) there is a low-authority website ranking within the top 10. Now,

the Questions report limits you to queries that are phrased as questions. And as I’ve already shown, not all informational queries include words like “how,” “what,” “why,” “where,” and “when.” There are additional keyword modifiers like “tutorial,” “list,” and “ideas” that imply a requirement for information. So let’s find more informational queries by getting to the Phrase match report. Now, to narrow in on informational keywords, I’ll click the include box and add an inventory of informational keyword modifiers. And I’ll change the tab to Any word. Next, I’ll set the KD filter again with a max value of 5. And now we’ve just expanded our list of queries where KD should be quite reliable.

As for commercial investigation queries, you’ll do the precise same thing, but rather than informational modifiers, you’ll use words like “best,” “top,” “price,” “review,” and more. and you will find that the Keyword Difficulty scores here are pretty good indicators of general ranking difficulty. But as always, you’d need to analyze the SERP to ascertain who you would be competing against. Here’s an inventory of informational and commercial investigation modifiers you’ll use. So be happy to require a screenshot and use them when you’re doing keyword research.


Again, KD may be a proxy to ranking difficulty. So it’s best when you’re doing keyword generation. Now, two quick notes.

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