Understanding Keyword Difficulty for SEO

By far one of the toughest areas of SEO is understanding how to do keyword research effectively and target realistic keywords. I work with a variety of clients at both the local and national level, so it is always interesting to see what their keyword targets are and in some cases, how unrealistic they are. Without properly assessing the difficulty of a keyword, you will never really know what kind of strategy you will need to be successful.

As an example, let’s say you operate a bookkeeping business and you want to show up on the first page of Google for your most popular keywords. It’s going to be far more difficult to rank for a keyword like “bookkeeping” or “accounting” versus something less difficult like “Sacramento bookkeeping service“.

What Is Keyword Difficulty?

On the pay-per-click side of things we know keyword difficulty is generally a measure of how expensive the keyword is to bid on. But how is it measured for search engine optimization? In some ways it is similar and in some ways it is incredibly different.

For most SEO research, I prefer to stick with a couple of tried and true tools: ahrefs.com and semrush.com. Both of these analysis tools offer a great projection at just how difficult a keyword is. The difficulty is assessed based on its search volume, how many sites are indexed for it, how many sites are receiving links with its exact-match anchor text, so on and so forth. Knowing exactly how competitive a keyword is goes a long way in driving an SEO strategy behind it.

When Is a Keyword Too Difficult?

Most analysis tools grade a keyword on a scale of 0-100. Keywords lower on the spectrum are much easier to rank while keywords in the 80s, 90s or closer to 100 are nearly impossible. These keywords are usually owned by bigger national brands with a lot of content, a lot of links pointing to their content and large marketing budgets. For small businesses who want to compete with a bigger brand for their head terms, it’s usually a difficult task.

Focus on Long-Tail Keywords

When an SEO talks about keyword strategy, you’ll likely hear head terms, torso terms and long-tail terms. Head and torso terms will carry more search volume, but they will also carry the most competition. If you need to rank for these kinds of keywords, you’ll need to plan to develop a lot of content, acquire a lot of links from trustworthy publishers and be able to support this strategy for the long-term. Since a lot of small businesses are not at this level, the focus should be on long-tail keywords.

Long-tail searches will have less overall search volume, but they will be a more intent-driven search and will be much easier to rank for. However, with that said, your strategy shouldn’t only consist of long-tail keywords. You’ll eventually find you’re not driving the traffic you want to and you’ll need to slowly approach torso terms.

Understanding the Full Scope of Keyword Difficulty

Keyword difficulty seems like it might be an easy topic to tackle, but the reality is you need to be able to understand several characteristics of a keyword. If it is going to be in your desired keyword set, create a fully developed strategy to target it. This post at Databox goes on to detail additional aspects of keyword difficulty like how difficulty is calculated, what is a good difficulty score, what other tools measure keyword difficulty and more.


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