In a world where big and impressive numbers get the glory, search volume is often a more vaunted metric than keyword difficulty. But while it’s important to know how many times in a given month your keyword is typically entered as a query, it’s equally important to understand the level of competition vying for ranking supremacy on that keyword. Find that strong inverse relationship between search volume and keyword difficulty—a high volume keyword with a low keyword difficulty level—using a keyword research tool, and you may just have yourself a business-valuable keyword to bid on (using PPC) or create organic content around (using SEO).
But there’s a third ingredient to the secret sauce when it comes to finding impactful keywords for your business—intent. A keyword with high volume and low difficulty is useless if it doesn’t fit your marketing objective—so it’s pivotal to understand not just what people are searching for, but why they’re searching for it. Is the keyword relevant enough to merit a bid? Is it applicable enough to your business to merit a blog post?
The purpose of this guide is to give an in-depth look at the importance of keyword difficulty in conducting effective keyword research—specifically, as it relates to search volume and search intent. We’re also going to take a look at the nuances of utilizing keyword difficulty for disparate ends—finding PPC keywords, and finding SEO keywords.
Keyword difficulty (or “competition”) is a metric used to determine how difficult it is rank for a keyword. Assessing keyword difficulty can help you determine whether or not it’s worth your time and money to either: 1. Optimize an organic page for that keyword, or 2. Bid on that keyword in a Google Ads campaign. There are a number of factors that go into determining how competitive a keyword is, and a number of nuances that go into incorporating keyword competition into various marketing campaigns.
Let’s start with how you can use keyword difficulty to maximize SEO.
Keyword difficulty in SEO is largely a measure of the number and quality of backlinks to the top ten pages in the Search Engine Results Page (SERP) for that keyword—or how competitive those pages are based on how strong their backlinks are. SEO keyword tools gauge the “competitiveness” of a SERP by looking at the domain authorities (or domain ratings) and page authorities (or URL ratings) of the indexed pages.
Confused? Let’s review these terms in a little more detail.
Like “keyword difficulty,” “domain authority” and “page authority”—you may also see them called domain rating and URL rating depending on the product you use—are not Google-sanctioned terms. Rather, they are metrics created by SEO software companies to estimate how much link equity a page or a domain contains. Because of that, you’re going to see some variation around the metrics themselves—not only from product to product, but in terms of how accurately they reflect the strength of the pages they’re assessing.
Link equity is as good a place as any to start when conceptualizing domain authority and page authority. An outbound link from a page contains as much link equity as the inbound links (external and internal) pointing to it. So, if you have two pages, Page A and Page B…
…and Page A has more inbound external links than Page B, an outbound link from Page A is going to contain more link equity than an outbound link from Page B (assuming the inbound links are coming from pages with the same level of authority). Page authority measures link equity at a page level. Domain authority measures it at a site-wide level. While domain authority is a strong indicator of the quality of an inbound link, page authority usually corresponds more directly with Google rankings, because it offers a more granular look at the backlink profiles of the indexed pages.
Because keyword difficulty gauges the competitiveness of the top 10 pages in the SERP you’re vying for, you can estimate how “difficult” a keyword is going to be to rank for by looking at the domain authorities and page authorities of the pages listed. Say you’re writing a blog post about keyword difficulty:
You can run some competitive analysis by looking, on a page-by-page basis, at how strong your competitors’ backlink profiles are. The above broad look at competitor domain authorities and page authorities comes courtesy of an extension from Moz called MozBar. MozBar tells you exactly how many backlinks you’re contending with on each page; what it doesn’t tell you the quality of those backlinks. If you want to get more granular in your investigation, you can use a tool like Ahrefs’ Site Explorer to see just where the page with the #1 ranking is getting its inbound links:
If you’re looking at keyword difficulty through the Ahrefs prism you’ll also see the approximate number of referring domains you’ll need to accrue to rank for a given keyword:
A metric which, again, does not tell the entire story—links from 68 subpar sites aren’t going to get you on page one. But it’s still useful—SEMrush has referring domains at number 5 on its list of top ranking factors.
Let’s look at these elements in the broader context of finding the best SEO keywords for your content.
As discussed, there are three ingredients to conducting effective keyword research—keyword difficulty, search volume, and intent. Now that you understand keyword difficulty from the perspective of an SEO, let’s talk about combining it with search volume and intent to find business-valuable SEO keywords.
Search volume in SEO is the number of monthly searches conducted each month for your keyword. Generally speaking, the higher a keyword’s search volume, the more likely a page optimized for that keyword will generate meaningful traffic for your business. You can evaluate the potential traffic value of a keyword by comparing search volume to pageviews in Analytics—if your best blog posts rake in 300 hits per month, then a 300 search volume is a good benchmark to use when looking for new keywords around which to base your content.
There are traditionally three types of search intent (we’ll come back to these when we discuss PPC):
Note: depending on who you ask, a fourth type of query, “commercial intent,” would represent a person nearly ready to make a purchase. We’ll stick with the above three variations for now.
It’s important to optimize for all three flavors of search intent. Pages closer to your homepage—product pages, about pages, etc.—should be optimized more heavily for navigational and transactional keywords than pages farther away from your homepage. For instance, a person looking for “men’s fur coats” is closer to purchase than a person looking for “how to choose a fur coat.” A product page is more appropriate for the first query; a blog post is more appropriate for the second.
Informational search intent is a bit less monolithic than navigational intent or transactional intent. Depending on your business goals, you can optimize for informational keywords that are both very loosely and very closely related to your brand and products. Say, for instance, your goal is to drive very top-of-funnel traffic—to get users to your site by any means possible so that they might gain familiarity with your brand. Using the above fur coat example: if you sell fur coats, “coat vs jacket” is not as low in the purchasing funnel as “how to buy a fur coat.” But it has a very strong volume to difficulty ratio:
Get these users—who are merely looking for information—to your website, and you’ve turned them from users into prospects. They now have the opportunity to navigate to your product pages, engage with a lead form, or fire your Facebook pixel and open themselves up to remarketing.
All sites want to rank for high-volume keywords with intents that match their business goals; and because of that, keyword difficulty is a key differentiator. You can use keyword difficulty to find high-volume, high-intent keywords that are less difficult to rank for than other high-volume, high-intent keywords. Doing so can save you massive amounts of time and frustration creating content that has the potential to generate traffic, but never quite does because of the level of competition in the SERP.
Like in the above example, you can use keyword difficulty as a fulcrum to find keywords that already meet your volume and intent-based needs, but may or may not be worth your time based on how competitive they are.
Keyword difficulty works a little differently in PPC, most obviously in name: “Competition” is the metric we’re going to be talking about. Keyword competition in PPC is typically assigned a rank—either Low, Medium, or High—which denotes the level of competition for that keyword relative to all keywords. Per Google’s Keyword Planner: “Competition is the number of advertisers that showed on each keyword relative to all keywords across Google. We calculate the number of advertisers bidding on each keyword relative to all keywords across Google. This data is specific to the locations and Search Network targeting option that you’ve selected.”
Much like SEO keywords, the most coveted PPC keywords maintain a high-volume-to-low-competition ratio. These keywords represent the potential to drive substantial traffic without costing an arm and a leg. As such, competition is key when assessing whether or not you should bid on a keyword—but as discussed earlier, volume and intent are still irreplaceable parts of the process.
As you might expect, longer keywords typically have lower search volumes—but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Let’s compare, for instance, “marketing” and “pay per click marketing software.” We would call marketing a “head” term—a broad keyword that consists of a single word or short phrase. Head terms usually have high volumes. On the flip side of that, because high volumes are sexy, head terms are usually highly competitive—they represent the potential for high traffic, but not without a significant bid, and not without a well-crafted ad.
We would call “pay per click marketing software,” on the other hand, a long-tail keyword. Long-tail keywords with super low search volumes are not ideal; but because they are longer, they are usually more specific. If you can find one with decent search volume that is hyper-relevant to your niche, you give yourself the opportunity to earn high-value clicks at a very reasonable price.
Let’s run through the traditional types of search intent again:
Intent in PPC is as important, if not more important than intent in SEO. A blog post optimized for a keyword that turns out to be irrelevant costs you nothing but the time it took to write the post; a search ad optimized for an irrelevant term costs you ad spend.
Ask yourself: What is your ideal customer looking for? Does the query realistically align with that need? Does the query trigger irrelevant searches that should be added as negative keywords? All of these questions play a role in determining whether or not you should bid on a keyword, and how aggressive you should be in your bid strategy.
One effective way to layer intent in PPC is to incorporate Remarketing Lists for Search Ads (RSLAs). RSLAs allow you to customize your campaigns for people who have previously visited your site, and tailor your bids and ads to these visitors when they’re searching on Google and search partner sites. When you pair RSLAs with keywords, you assign those a more granular layer of intent—this person has searched for your target keyword and visited your site in the past—which allows you to adjust your offer, message, and bid strategy accordingly.
While we’re on the subject of getting more for your ad spend, we should mention proper budgeting. When we say “proper,” we mean this: the majority of your PPC budget should be spent on the keywords that have the greatest chance of converting:
These numbers are not exact. This is just an example of a potential breakdown.
Read: be balanced, but devote the most dollars to keywords with the highest transactional intent.
Naturally, lower competition is “better”; but inevitably, there are going to be competitive keywords you want to bid on because they align with the goals of your campaign. Here are some ways to hedge against overspending in those cases:
Volume, Competition, Average CPC, intent…it can be a little overwhelming to sift through piles of keywords while keeping all of these relevant factors in mind. Wouldn’t it be nice if you could measure the prospective viability of a keyword by consolidating all the metrics that mattered into one?
WordStream’s Opportunity Score does just that. Use our Free Keyword Tool, and you’ll find each keyword scored based on how much potential value it represents for your business.
Opportunity Score takes into account Search Volume, Competition, and Average CPC, and assigns each keyword a score of 1-10 based on those metrics. With the ratio of volume-to-competition quantified, you can focus on filtering for intent.
Let’s reiterate the keyword research secret sauce: search volume, keyword difficulty (or competition), and intent. No keyword can be properly assessed without all three ingredients accounted for—whether you’re working in paid or organic search. That said: control for search volume and intent, and keyword difficulty becomes an effective metric by which to filter your search. Know your budget and your campaign goals, identify the SERPs in which you can be competitive, and select accordingly.
Shout-out to Kristina Simonson, our in-house acquisition expert, who helped write this post.
Gordon Donnelly is an SEO jedi who proudly honed his chops at WordStream for 5+ years. Today, you’ll find him at home in Boston, building Triple Whale’s world-class e-commerce analytics platform, or helping businesses of all sizes grow through SEO, advertising, and content marketing.
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