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Keyword Difficulty: Time for This Non-personalized Metric to Evolve

9 min read

Keyword difficulty was a welcome addition when first introduced over a decade ago. Things were simpler back then.

Search results were limited to 10 blue links on a page and search engine optimization was primitive in comparison. But a lot has changed since then.

In this post we explore keyword difficulty – why it was created, its limitations as currently implemented and how it’s changing for the better.

What Is Keyword Difficulty and Why Is It Important?

Keyword difficulty is a metric content marketers and SEOs use to determine the potential difficulty in ranking for a specific search term. Usually, it’s a number between 0 and 100, with the number increasing as it becomes more difficult to rank.

It’s often used in conjunction with other metrics to determine whether content should be created or optimized targeting a certain keyword. If there’s little chance of ranking on the first page of the SERP, there’s little incentive to invest in content oriented towards that term.

Keyword Difficulty vs. Keyword Competition

Before we get too far ahead, let’s clear up any confusion between keyword difficulty and keyword competition. Keyword competition can be found in Google’s Keyword Planner tool. 

It’s the number of advertisers bidding on a particular search term in Google Ads platform. Search engine marketers use this to determine how difficult it may be for their advertisement to appear. 

It has nothing to do with keyword difficulty, which indicates how hard it is to rank in organic search.

A Brief History of Keyword Difficulty

Keyword difficulty is not a new concept. Some of the largest and most authoritative SEO platforms promote the metric as a prioritization score or a validation score.

They bake it into ROI methodology and incorporate it into several other “how can I beat my competition” directions. Their approach to keyword difficulty is rather straightforward:

  • How much content is out there?
  • How good is the content?
  • Who is creating the content?

Historically, there’s a reason for this perspective. At the turn of the century, backlinks were a big thing, metadata ruled rank, the SERP was a list of 10 blue links, and domain authority was king.

Some companies take a simpler approach, using keyword difficulty as a proxy for the average number of backlinks across the top 10 ranking pages. Others have tried to dissect keyword difficulty into component parts. 

But they’re still operating under the same paradigm of difficulty in the age of PageRank. 

During its lifetime, Google has made numerous refinements to its search engine algorithms. Some of the changes, like Panda, Hummingbird, and Rankbrain were obvious. Other improvements have been more subtle. 

In 2020 alone, Google made over 4,500 improvements to search; that’s one every other hour. We no longer live in the age of PageRank. We live in the age of Content.

What’s Missing in Every Keyword Difficulty Metric?

Difficulty in the age of Content is nothing like it was 20 years ago. Back then:

  • Backlinks were the dominating ranking factor
  • Meta data ruled
  • The SERP was simply a list of blue links
  • Domain Authority was king
Difference between difficulty in the age of PageRank vs the age of Content.
Keyword difficulty comparison

Today, we’re in an environment where:

  • Advanced SERP features abound.
  • Schema is used for content structure.
  • Internal linking creates topical clusters.
  • External linking enhances UX and builds credibility.
  • Content is King

This is the first personalized difficulty score, ever, in the industry.

How MarketMuse Personalized Difficulty Score Works

MarketMuse has created a difficulty score relative to today’s Google ranking factors and the primary new factors are content specific! We call this score Personalized Topic Difficulty.

Topic Difficulty: How hard is it for anyone to rank for a topic?

Personalized Difficulty: How hard is it for you to rank for a topic?

Before we delve further into Personalized Difficulty, there are a couple of related concepts you should know about. These are Topic Authority and Competitive Advantage.

Topic Authority

Topic Authority considers the content on your site. Specifically, it examines the amount coverage of a topic and how well your pages about that topic perform, both now and historically. A site that publishes a great deal of high-performing expert-level content around a specific topic will have higher authority on that topic, relative to the competition.

Likewise, a site that publishes no content, or a small amount of poorly-performing content can have negative authority. It’s not a penalty, it’s just a way of indicating your authority is lagging behind the competition.

MarketMuse Topic Authority bar examples
MarketMuse Topic Authority bar examples

When red and negative, your topic authority is staggering behind the competition.

When green and positive, your topic has authority and the higher the number the more competitive your site is when publishing content on this topic.

Competitive Advantage

Competitive advantage is the difference between the general difficulty score and Personalized Difficulty. MarketMuse represents this graphically by a bar. 

A red bar indicates it’s more difficult for you than the standard, while a green bar represents the opposite, it’s easier for you than the standard. Let’s look at some examples.

Competitive Advantage bar is green because Personalized Difficulty is less than topic Difficulty.
MarketMuse Competitive advantage graph (green)

In this example, the topic starts at a very hard point (85 Difficulty). But it’s significantly easier for you (15 Personalized Difficulty) based on your authority advantage.

Competitive Advantage bar is red because Personalized Difficulty is greater than topic Difficulty.
MarketMuse Competitive advantage graph (green)

In this situation the topic starts at a hard point (70 Difficulty), but it’s slightly harder for you (85 Personalized Difficulty) based on your authority disadvantage.

Personalized Difficulty

As the name implies, Personalized Difficulty is a metric that’s personalized to your site’s particular situation. If you publish a great deal of high-performing expert-level content surrounding a particular topic, it will be easier to rank additional content on that topic. You have a competitive advantage based on your content.

The best way to look at Personalized Difficulty is in terms of the ranges or bands.

  • Below 10 – should only have to update one page if you have one that is appropriate for that intent.
  • 10 to 20 – write one page, update semantically related pages.
  • 20 to 30 – write a couple of pages, update semantically related pages.
  • 30 to 50 – write a cluster, update semantically related pages.
  • 50 plus – multiple clusters to create a foundation, update semantically related pages.

Likewise, targeting a topic that you’ve never written about puts you at a competitive disadvantage. If your competition has covered that topic extensively while you have not, then you have a lot of catching up to do.

Combining Personalized Difficulty With Other Metrics

Personalized Difficulty offers insight into how much work is required to achieve success in Search. But it’s best when combined with Competitive Advantage. This metric gives you an idea of how likely your are to succeed; the higher the Competitive Advantage, the better.

You can also combine Personalized Difficulty with value metrics such as Unrealized Value to find those topics that have the greatest upside potential where you are most likely to succeed with a minimal amount of effort.


Learn More

Check out our article Content Inventory Analysis: 3 Decision-Making Metrics to learn more on how these combined metrics function.


Keyword Difficulty vs Personalized Difficulty

Now that we’ve explained the concept of Personalized Difficulty, let’s explore the difference between keyword difficulty, which is not personalized, and MarketMuse Personalized Difficulty.

Let’s use “content marketing study” as our example. Using your favorite keyword tool you’ll see the numbers differ because everyone has their own approach. But they all agree that it’s hard to rank for this keyword.

Here’s something else they agree on.

Tools that use a general Keyword Difficulty treat all sites the same, regardless of your content;  meaning it’s equally hard to rank. That’s because content doesn’t factor into their equation, even though we know that recent Google ranking factors are content specific.

Keyword difficulty comparison

So, according to traditional Keyword Difficulty metrics, a site like Content Marketing Institute will have the same difficulty ranking for “content marketing study” as everyone else. 

The fact that they have numerous pages related to that topic has no influence on Keyword Difficulty. That is, unless you use MarketMuse Personalized Difficulty.

As you can see, this site has a distinct competitive advantage because they routinely publish well-performing comprehensive content. When it comes to this topic, Content Marketing Institute has a great deal of authority. As a result, their Personalized Difficulty score shows it’s much easier for them to rank.

content marketing study SERP

Perhaps it’s no coincidence that this site occupies the top four positions in the SERP for this term!

The Takeaway

Keyword Difficulty, in the age of PageRank, was a welcome addition. But search has dramatically changed and we now find ourselves living in the age of content. 

The disembodied Keyword Difficulty score needs to be augmented by Personalized Difficulty. This way you have a metric that realistically provides insight about your ability to rank for a specific topic. 

Your site is unique, as should be your difficulty score.

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