Generating organic traffic is getting harder, thanks to massive competition in SERPs, endless streams of AI generated content, and hundreds of annual algorithm changes by search engines.

Outranking your competitors organically in the search results requires top-notch, optimised, and helpful content that targets easy keywords.

What is seo keyword difficulty

A deeper understanding of keyword difficulty and the ability to find low-difficulty keywords that align with your content marketing strategy can help skyrocket organic traffic.

How? Let’s dive in!

What is a keyword?

A keyword in SEO is a word or phrase that a searcher enters in the search engine. For brands, a keyword is a term that they want to rank for in SERPs. Keywords are search terms your target audience uses to find content in search engines.

For example, “lose belly fat” is a keyword in the following example:

keyword example from google

Businesses that optimise their content for relevant keywords rank higher in SERPs and drive more organic traffic. You can read more about SEO keywords here.

What is keyword difficulty?

Keyword difficulty (also known as keyword competition or SEO difficulty) is an SEO metric that’s used to determine the difficulty level of a keyword in terms of ranking in SERPs. It tells you how difficult it is to rank for a keyword.

Keyword difficulty (KD) is reported by almost all the keyword research tools. There is, however, no standard way to determine and report keyword difficulty.

Some keyword tools report it in the form of a percentage, others in the form of a number, and some report it in the form of the ability to rank (easy, medium, and hard).

Here’s an example from

keyword difficulty score

Ahrefs, for example, uses a number between 0 and 100 where a low number represents easy keywords while a high number indicates very hard keywords (more on this below).

Irrespective of how keyword difficulty is reported, it means the same thing.

Why is keyword difficulty important in SEO?

Understanding keyword difficulty is the key to a successful SEO strategy.

You can find and prioritise keywords based on their difficulty. This helps you rank in SERPs quickly.

Targeting a high difficulty keyword means high competition and you might not be able to rank for it. On the other hand, a keyword with low difficulty might not drive too much traffic.

You need to find keywords that have average keyword difficulty and are equally important for your business.

This helps strengthen your content strategy.

Here’s what makes keyword difficulty important in SEO:

    • Find keywords for content strategy
    • Prioritise keywords in the editorial calendar based on keyword difficulty
    • Find off-topic keywords that you can rank easily without hurting your brand image
    • Identify and prioritise backlink acquisition. Keywords with low difficulty require a few backlinks as opposed to high-difficulty keywords

The key is maintain a mix of different keywords to avoid ranking skewness.

Targeting only low-competition keywords isn’t a healthy sign as you might appear to be creating content for search engines – which Google doesn’t appreciate.

How to check keyword difficulty?

You’ve to use a keyword research tool to check keyword difficulty. All the leading keyword research platforms have their own keyword difficulty metrics.

Here’s a list of the top keyword difficulty checker tools:

1. Ahrefs

Ahrefs tracks and reports keyword difficulty from a scale of 0 to 100 which is calculated on the basis of referring domains you need to rank on the first page of search results.

You can check Ahrefs keyword difficulty for any keyword free here. Enter a keyword, select location, and click Check keyword:

Ahrefs keyword difficulty checker

You will see keyword difficulty and the estimated number of referring domains you need to rank in the top 10 search results along with the SERP overview:

Ahrefs keyword difficulty checker example

The free tool gives you restricted access to the Ahrefs keyword checker tool. You’ve to manually add a new keyword to check its difficulty. Paid members get access to all the keyword difficulty checker tool features that look like this:

Ahrefs keyword checker example

It shows you a detailed breakdown of the keyword with a list of related keywords that can be filtered for better functionality.

2. Semrush

Semrush reports keyword difficulty in the form of a percentage (KD%) which is reported in the form of a number between 0 and 100 where a higher number refers to a higher difficulty.

You need a Semrush account to check keyword difficulty. Add a keyword, select the location, and click Search:

semrush keyword overview

You get a detailed overview of the keyword with several features including intent, trend, search volume, keyword ideas, SERP analysis, and more:

semrush keyword difficulty example

It is quite detailed and more comprehensible than Ahrefs. However, you can’t use Semrush’s keyword difficulty tool free of cost (like Ahrefs).

You get a limited number of free searches per month and full access to the tool requires a subscription.

3. Moz

You can also use Moz to check the difficulty of any keyword. It shows the difficulty as a number between 1 to 100.

You can use the free version of the Moz keyword difficulty checker here. Enter the keyword and click Analyse keyword:

moz keyword difficulty checker

You get a difficulty score along with monthly search volume, organic CTR, priority, SERP analysis, and keyword suggestions:

moz keyword difficulty checker overview

It isn’t as detailed as Semrush and Ahrefs, but it does a decent job. You can create a free account with Moz and get up to 10 free searches per month.

(Not bad for small businesses and entrepreneurs who are on a budget.)

How is keyword difficulty calculated?

There is no standard way to calculate keyword difficulty. It’s all relative.

The keyword difficulty checker tools use different metrics to calculate KD, which is why the KD of the same keyword by different research tools isn’t always the same.

Take the example of “lose belly fat”:

  • Ahrefs shows a keyword difficulty of 83 making it very hard.
  • Semrush has 100% difficulty with very hard for the same keyword.
  • Moz shows a keyword difficulty of 72.

While all the 3 keyword tools rate it very hard, the actual value is quite different. This is because they’ve different ways to calculate keyword difficulty.

Ahrefs, for example, uses a number of referring domains to calculate keyword difficulty.

This is based on a study that Ahrefs conducted which found a strong correlation between the number of referring domains and search position in Google SERPs.

So, Ahrefs uses referring domains of the top 10 ranking pages for a given keyword to calculate keyword difficulty.

Ahrefs keyword difficulty metric

According to Ahrefs, the relationship between KD and the number of referring domains is as follows:

Ahrefs keyword difficulty and referring domain association

Ahrefs relies only on the number of referring domains and doesn’t use any other metric to calculate KD. This makes Ahrefs KD less effective as it doesn’t account for the quality and relevance of the referring domains.

Even if it does, Ahrefs uses its own metric to monitor domain relevance and authority known as Ahrefs domain rating (DR).

So, only only does it use a single metric to calculate KD, but Ahrefs relies heavily on its own metrics which isn’t too great from an SEO perspective.

Semrush, on the other hand, uses multiple factors to calculate keyword difficulty including:

  • Average number of referring domains to the top-ranking pages
  • Median ratio of dofollow vs nofollow links
  • Average authority of the domains ranking on the first page
  • SERP qualities of the keyword.

This is a comprehensive process that uses multiple variables for calculation.

Similarly, Moz analyses the strength of the top 10 organic search results to calculate keyword difficulty.

Here’s a list of the different variables that can be used to calculate keyword difficulty:

  • The number of referring domains
  • Website authority of the top-ranking pages
  • Page authority of the top pages
  • Number of backlinks
  • Ratio of nofollow vs dofollow backlinks
  • SERP features.

Keyword difficulty vs. Keyword competition

Keyword difficulty and competition are often used interchangeably, but they are different.

Keyword difficulty is calculated based on the organic search results and doesn’t count paid search results. Keyword competition is a metric used by Google Ads to show the competitiveness of a keyword based on the number of advertisers bidding on it.

Keyword competition is based on the number of bidders, location, and targeting options. It is reported by Google Ads as low, medium, and high.

Keyword difficulty is relative

Since there is no standardised KD formula, it is relative and fluctuates.

You rarely find two SEO tools reporting the same KD for a single keyword. This means you don’t have to rely blindly on keyword difficulty to include/exclude keywords from your content strategy.

Search engines use numerous factors to rank websites in SERPs that aren’t public.

A recent leak of Yandex (Russian search engine) code revealed a whopping 1922 search ranking factors.

Yandex is a localised search engine and if it’s using around 2,000 ranking factors, it isn’t hard to assume how many factors Google might be using being a global giant.

This means it’s nearly impossible for SEO tools to report accurate keyword difficulty and to estimate or determine ranking ability upfront (especially when it’s based only on a few factors).

You need to use keyword difficulty to assist you in decision-making, but your decisions shouldn’t be entirely based on a keyword’s difficulty level.

Keyword relevancy and alignment with your business, marketing, and content strategy are more important.

For example, a very hard-to-rank keyword (like SEO services) that’s extremely relevant to your business shouldn’t be ignored.

Similarly, an ‘easy’ and high-traffic keyword that has the potential to drive tons of relevant organic traffic to your site, but is not aligned with your content strategy shouldn’t be targeted.

Targeting a keyword just because you can rank for it means you are violating Google’s helpful content policy and might face consequences.

Content that’s written solely for search engines (instead of people) isn’t considered helpful by Google and would not do well in SERPs.

Keyword relevancy with your business and content strategy should come first and its difficulty second.

Follow these best practices to use keyword difficulty the right way:

  • Use keyword difficulty to get an overall idea of keyword competitiveness for SEO and content strategies
  • Avoid relying solely on KD for decision-making instead consider other factors such as your backlink profile, search intent, content quality, etc.
  • If you can, use more than one SEO tool to measure KD. Compare different KDs and calculate your average to make more sense
  • Targeting a low keyword difficulty doesn’t guarantee you will rank for it and vice versa
  • Don’t confuse keyword difficulty with keyword competition as they are different and have quite different calculation methods
  • Select the right target countries (location) when measuring KD. It’s not the same across countries
  • Couple keyword difficulty with search intent to come up with more realistic target keywords
  • Manually monitor the top search results to understand the difficulty level of the target keyword. This will provide you with the latest status which is usually hard to find with SEO tools (as they don’t update KD regularly)


No matter how variable and unstandardised, understanding keyword difficulty is one of the best ways to improve organic ranking and traffic.

It makes it much easier to find keywords that you can rank for by beating the competition.

When done well in combination with a broader SEO strategy, keyword difficulty helps you outrank your competition, boost organic traffic, and create sustainable growth.

Maintaining the right balance of keyword difficulty and search intent in your overall organic strategy is crucial for success.

This is what we do at Growth Minded Marketing. We help brands grow their businesses with SEO backed by keywords determined by difficulty, intent, and business alignment.

Talk to us today and see how our SEO team can help you in finding easy-to-rank keywords.