Michael O'Neill

Nearly two-thirds of B2B marketers state their content marketing programs are “much more successful” or “somewhat more successful” than they were a year ago.

So what’s driving this uptick in content marketing success?

As this chart from CMI shows, marketers are producing higher quality content, adjusting their strategies for positive results and improving their ability to measure outcomes.

Oh yeah, and 46 percent have simply made the decision to spend more time making their content work for them.

Via contentmarketinginstitute.com

Part of these marketing victories may be traced back to firms having a stronger grasp on keyword research, which materializes in the form of targeted content strategies and better ROI.

Which brings us to a commonly misunderstood component of the keyword research process: understanding keyword difficulty and its uses.

So how does keyword difficulty connect to organic results?

What Is Keyword Difficulty?

Keyword difficulty is a measurement of how difficult it will likely be to outrank other search results that currently rank for a query.

Though the term “keyword difficulty” is now an accepted industry standard, different marketers and digital tools may define it in their own way depending upon the proprietary algorithms and indicators being factored into a singular keyword difficulty score.

For instance, Moz’s Difficulty Score evaluates and weighs the Domain Authority and Page Authority of organic listings that appear on the first page of SERPs, among other factors. But even with this definition, Moz Founder Rand Fishkin admits to variation in how Difficulty Scores are calculated:

Via moz.com

In essence, keyword difficulty helps you predict whether you are likely to outrank your competitors. The higher the number, the harder it will be for your blog post to appear on page one of SERPs (or page two or three for that matter).

Difficulty Scores above 60 (on a 1-100 scale) are typically hard to compete with, all things considered, whereas scores in the 20s or 30s may offer more ranking opportunities for the average site. Keep in mind, however, that KD is relative to Domain Authority, so if your site has a DA of 80, a KD of 60 is actually very easy to compete with.

The Difference Between PPC and Organic Keyword Difficulty

Classifying keyword difficulty as an organic metric is paramount, as many tools on the market use similar terminology that actually corresponds to paid search, not organic.

Headache, I know.

While an experienced marketer may be able to spot the difference between the two, a given tool’s interface may not make it perfectly clear as to what it’s reporting: PPC difficulty or organic difficulty.

SearchMetrics, for example, organizes “search volume” side by side with “CPC,” which is fine on the surface, as one measures interest, the other cost.  But a novice marketer may interpret CPC as a relevant metric that determines organic keyword difficulty, which is not the case.

And Google Keyword Planner shows this:

In paid search, or PPC, cost-per-click (CPC) is a benchmark for how competitive a keyword is, based on the dollar amount you would need to bid in AdWords. So, in a sense, CPC does measure keyword difficulty, just not within the organic sphere.

How To Calculate Organic Keyword Difficulty

You’re going to need tools.

But setting that aside for a moment, the science behind keyword difficulty really comes down to:

  • Domain Authority.
  • Page Authority.
  • Number of referral domains.
  • Content relevance to search query.
  • Content depth of top-ranking results for a search query.

Some tools go beyond these core indicators; some use only a few. Ahrefs’ Keyword Explorer tool actually doesn’t factor in on-page SEO at all (e.g., content length, user behavior signals, exact match keyword in metadata, etc.) but rather focuses exclusively on the backlink profiles of page one results.

Running with the Ahrefs example, they break down their Keyword Difficulty (on a 1-100 scale) by showing how a higher score correlates to the number of backlinks the top 10 results in SERPs have:

Via ahrefs.com

So, if a term you’re hoping to own has a Keyword Difficulty score of 90, the likely way to outrank everyone else is to obtain 756+ backlinks to that page. That is astronomically difficult.

But what’s within reach for the average site? Ahrefs provides this helpful scale:

Via ahrefs.com

Based on this scale, you really need to pick and choose your battles. High-competition keywords may not be worthwhile, whereas lower volume keywords backed by clear searcher intent provide greater opportunity for SERP movement (aka organic ranking).

Moz uses a similar representation of Keyword Difficulty (albeit with somewhat more nuanced indicators involved):

Via searchengineland.com

Keyword Difficulty Tools

It’s not necessary to do too much manual work when performing SEO research. You have a variety of keyword research tool choices at your fingertips, each with its own algorithm to determine whether your blog posts, landing pages and more have enough of the right kinds of keywords to rank highly.

Here’s a quick breakdown keyword research tool types you can use, with a clear distinction between their functions within your content marketing program:


  • Semrush
    • This platform is designed to contain several different keyword research functions in one, including social and competitor analysis.
  • Moz Keyword Explorer
    • The user-friendly free app can deliver good suggestions for impactful keywords to target.
  • Ahrefs
    • This keyword research tool includes competitor and industry research functions and lets you track your rankings over time.


  • SearchMetrics
    • The software suite is designed to deliver unique views of paid keyword performance data.

Google Keyword Planner

  • Google’s keyword tool is free to use, and helps you discover related keywords tied to your initial choices.

Why Keyword Difficulty Is So Important to Keyword Research

Keyword research allows marketers to design and benchmark an actionable content strategy.

If you want to show content marketing ROI, it starts with keyword research.

Assessing keyword difficulty is akin to spying on the competition. With metrics on which keywords are performing best, what types of content best serve a given keyword and how much ROI may be tied to moving up in SERPs, it’s simply a matter of creating and distributing the content that features your keyword targets.

To produce a keyword report customized to your target audience’s content needs, keyword difficulty should be measured against search volume, your own Domain Authority and the intent behind search queries.

There are effectively three forms of searcher intent, and a Keyword Difficulty score may mean different things to each of these types of searches. That’s why you should incorporate very specific types of keywords into your content strategy, not just ones that have high or low search volume or that may, on the surface, appear to be related to your market.

  • Informational: Searcher is looking for information, with no clear motive beyond that.
  • Navigational: Searcher is looking for a specific page or site, for which there is only one destination.
  • Transactional/Commercial: Searcher is looking to interact with a site via downloading an asset, signing up for an event or making a purchase.

A Closer Look: Informational Keywords vs. Commercial Intent Keywords

While navigational keywords are very straightforward, informational keywords and commercial intent keywords are more nuanced, and you can benefit from using both in your SEO strategy.

Since they are used by people just hoping to get answers to their questions, informational keywords should be heavily featured in educational and thought leadership content.

The relatively high search volume associated with top informational keywords will help your brand become an authority on various subjects, though the path to purchase may not be particularly short or direct.

With the right expectations in place, you can gradually build an audience through use of these phrases. They should be a focus in the majority of your blog posts, how-to and informational articles.

As for actually driving revenue via your keyword research and usage, that’s where commercial intent keywords fit in.

What these keywords may lack in volume, they make up for in value-driving search intent. People who type these phrases into their browsers are close to making a purchase. Your SEO strategy should include commercial intent keywords to ensure they’ll find you when this happens.

Landing pages and product pages are the ideal places for commercial intent keyword ideas. When it’s time to buy something, people will appreciate a very direct path to make the purchase.

And if those visitors recognize and trust your brand name because they previously found thought leadership information on your website? That’s a fully fledged SEO strategy working as intended.

Why Intent-Driven Keywords Matter (Even if There Is Low Search Volume)

In terms of keyword difficulty, it often happens that a certain correlation exists:

  • High search volume = high KD.
  • Low search volume = low KD.

There are, of course, many shades of gray that exist along the spectrum of search volume, and, based on the tool you’re using, you may find there are plenty of medium-difficulty search terms that warrant targeting.

It’s not uncommon for us at Brafton to produce content around keywords that have 100 or fewer searches per month (SPM). Even though a term like “content marketing” generates 15,000 SPM, it’s too broad to be considered actionable and its difficulty score makes it a fruitless investment.

Keywords with low search volume tend to be hyper-specific and more focused on certain actions. For instance, if I’m googling “content creation agencies in chicago for blogs,” the organic results I want to see in SERPs need to answer several things:

  • Is this a content creation agency?
  • Is this located in Chicago?
  • Is this specific to blogs?

If the results I see do not hammer on these questions, I’m not going to click.

Looking at this from another angle, low search volume acts as a site-visitor qualifier.

If a searcher lands on a Brafton landing page after querying “content creation agencies in chicago for blogs,” I already know their intent. They are already way down the funnel.

In fact, I may be able to gather enough info from this query, that within one or two interactions with the searcher, I could close a deal. Moz tells us that this term has no search volume (which means the keyword doesn’t yet exist in their database or the SPM is barely measurable) and a KD of 26. We could easily own this keyword if we deemed it necessary.

That’s why intent-driven keywords matter, and it’s all the better that high-intent, low-volume keywords tend also to have KD scores that are low enough for brands to target with the potential to generate real results.

Long-Tail Keywords

The other element in the keyword equation is how long-tail a query is.

“Content marketing” is much different than “content creation agencies in chicago for blogs.”

The more words entered into a search bar, the more intent a user brings to the table. These searches tend to be 4-6 words long, providing you with an opportunity to understand where users are coming from and what they seek to find.

When evaluating keyword difficulty, ensure long-tail keywords with high commercial intent are a part of your process.

Via raventools.com

Factoring in Keyword Difficulty When Performing a SERP Analysis

A SERP analysis is a snapshot of the playing field.

By looking at the top-performing content on page one (sometimes page two, as well) of SERPs, you gain a better idea of why certain pages appear higher in SERPs.

From a SERP analysis, you can answer the following questions, among others:

  • What is the Domain/Page Authority of a site/page?
  • How many links does this page have?
  • How many referring domains does this page have?
  • What keywords were used?
  • What on-page SEO elements were used?

Moz even has a Chrome extension that does this automatically within SERPs:

Via moz.com

These metrics quickly show you whether a given keyword is worth pursuing.

Overcoming SERP Crowding

SERP crowding refers to how much noise exists on page one of SERPs.

By noise we mean any visual distraction from traditional organic listings. SERPs are much more than 10 blue links, as each organic result must now complete with paid ads, Google SERP features (Featured Snippets, Answer Boxes, Knowledge Panels, etc.), Google Posts and more.

Look how busy this display is:

It’s not enough to simply target a valuable keyword and build content around it. You must also assess SERP crowding for that term to determine whether you even stand a chance to visually appear above the fold.

If a searcher doesn’t see your result within milliseconds due to heavy SERP crowding, your opportunity may have been squandered. Plus, the top three results in search generate upward of 60 percent of all clicks. So, if you can’t rank in the top three for a difficult term, your time is likely best spent elsewhere.

In tandem with KD, look at SERP crowding metrics, which we visualize similar to below:

The higher the SERP crowding percentage, the more opportunity you have.

Measuring keyword difficulty can be, well, difficult, unless you’re confident in the tools you’re using and well-versed in the marketing terminology at hand.

Any other terms you’re having trouble with?

Let us know.

Editor’s Note: Updated September 2021.