How often have you faced the following dilemma: after researching keywords for some time and discovering hundreds of phrases that you’d want to rank for, you're left wondering how to prioritize which of those keywords to target first?
Well, the most common approach is to focus on the search volume. It makes sense, doesn’t it? High volume keywords seem to present the biggest opportunity for your brand, after all.
Though it’s useful to know how often a target keyword is searched per month, its search volume reveals absolutely nothing about how difficult it is for you to rank for that phrase.
To find that out, you must evaluate the keyword difficulty – a critical metric to determine your keyword opportunities and prioritize the efforts.
In this post, you’ll learn exactly what keyword difficulty is (and also, what it is not). I’ll also show you a simple process to evaluate your chances of ranking for target keywords.
So, let’s take it from the top.
What is Keyword Difficulty?
(Note: We’ve published a thorough examination of what keyword difficulty is in an earlier post. What follows is an abbreviated version).
Keyword difficulty is not a new concept to SEOs. It’s been around in various forms for a good part of the last ten years.
It is, however, one of the most misunderstood aspects of SEO.
For one, it’s often confused with keyword competition, a term you’ll find in the Google Keyword Planner. Although both terms do seem similar, they look at two completely different aspects of your target phrases.
Keyword competitiveness relates to paid terms and indicates the level of competition you may find when bidding for a keyword.
On the other hand, keyword difficulty measures your likelihood of ranking for a particular phrase in the organic search results.
Another confusing factor is the lack of a standardized approach to calculate keyword difficulty.
Various SEO tools have implemented individual approaches to determining the difficulty of a keyword, resulting in each tool delivering a different keyword difficulty score.
- MOZ, for example, uses a combination of page authority and domain authority (which, in turn, is based on the number of referring domains.)
- SEMrush evaluates keyword difficulty based on the “authority” of ranking domains. The company does not reveal publicly how they assess that authority, though.
- Ahrefs counts the number of referring domains and bases the score on how many links you’d need to rank for a keyword.
(Keyword difficulty score in Ahrefs)
The challenge with those approaches, however, is that they rely on backlinks as the measure of the SERP competitiveness.
Unfortunately, backlinks (or any other metrics that base their score on links) are neither the only nor the strongest factor in determining a page’s ranking potential anymore.
Year after year, we see the influence of links on rankings diminishing. Granted, links are still a ranking factor, however, they aren’t as strong as they once have been.
Let me be clear here, though; this approach may have worked in the past. The SERP is not what it used to be anymore, though, and we have to focus on many different elements before we even consider backlinks.
We must target the user intent, for example. How well a page matches the users’ expectations will affect its rankings, after all.
We look at universal search types too. These offer new opportunities to rank at the top of the SERP, even though the actual page is nowhere near the top spot
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Google and other search engines look at far more metrics than just links when evaluating how to rank a page too.
As a result, to determine how difficult it would be for your site to rank, you need to do the same.
What you must figure out, specifically, is how strong your page needs to be to rank.
Enter: Page Strength
Page Strength encapsulates all ranking factors. It includes everything that Google looks at when evaluating how to rank a page to help estimate how difficult it is to rank for the traffic positions (rankings that can generate solid organic click-through rate).
To calculate page strength, we use all the data available in the seoClarity platform. The Research Grid, for example, is the world largest database with 300M+ keywords. ClarityGrid, on the other hand, collects all the data about a URL. It knows who links to it, how many keywords it ranks for, where it ranks, and its behavior in the SERP.
Its premise is simple – to know whether you could rank for a keyword, you need to know how strong your page is to Google, and how it compares with the top-ranking content.
And its role is to help you identify how difficult a keyword will be to rank for. Because, to understand keyword difficulty, you must first understand the page strength of the top-ranking content. If those pages are significantly stronger than yours, you're going to have a hard time ranking for that keyword.
How to Evaluate Your Ranking Potential for a Keyword
Here’s a quick process to help you determine which keywords to prioritize. It relies on evaluating target keywords against the following criteria:
- Search Volume – The metric enables you to determine the actual demand for a keyword. Now, as I mentioned above, search volume shouldn’t be the only criteria you use. Instead, use it to discover the audience’s interest and what goes with it, the keyword’s potential.
- Search intent – Evaluate whether the intent matches what I want to optimize the keyword for.
- Cost per Click – Look at the keyword from the business perspective too. Ask yourself, what if the PPC team invested in the keyword, what would the investment, and the potential return be like? Answering this question will help you evaluate the commercial potential behind the keyword.
- The SERP Signature – Are there any universal search types that you could target with the keyword?
- Competitors ranking for the phrase – if the people you compete with do not rank for the keyword, do you have the chance to get there? More often than not, the answer might be no.
- Content on a page – Evaluate the top-ranking content to see the base information required to get on page one. Does it match the intent you have for your asset?
With these criteria, you can figure out your chances of ranking and the effort required to do so.
Conducting the process manually is cumbersome at best. Plus, you could never evaluate the entire scope of ranking factors to determine the full keyword difficulty.
Let me show you something that can help.
Taking a Complete Look at Keyword Difficulty with seoClarity
Over the last two years, we’ve been evaluating factors that make pages strong enough to rank. Out of that research comes the new Keyword Difficulty value in seoClarity.
Keyword Difficulty uses an entirely new way of understanding how difficult it is to rank in the traffic positions for a keyword.
Incorporating a robust machine learning algorithm, the feature evaluates billions of data points from our entire Research Grid dataset, from a topical authority, rankings, backlinks, search volume, trends, volatility, and more to determine a keyword difficulty score for each keyword.
(Keyword difficulty score in seoClarity)
As you can see, our output does not use percentages or numerical values to report on difficulty.
Instead, the system simply tells you whether a keyword would be easy, medium, or hard for you to obtain.
Approaching keyword difficulty this way frees you from trying to determine the value behind a number, making it easy to understand what’s required of you to rank.