Can You Predict How Hard it is to Rank For a Keyword?

Ranking Difficulty Gives You a Strong Idea

You’ve got big SEO ideas, but you can’t tackle everything in a day. We added a straight-forward metric to help you sort things out.

Keyword research is a process. Once you gut-check keywords and check their competitive history during your keyword discovery and research phase, you have to prioritize which keywords to shoot for. That’s plenty of work in itself before you even get to the ongoing climb of optimizing your content to get there.

Should I go for that keyword? A keyword’s Ranking Difficulty score measures how difficult it would be to rank in those top search results. We added scores on a 1-100 scale to help you gauge it without guessing or interpretation.

SEO difficulty showing in related keywords

Above is a comparison of keywords phrase-matched off of “link building” in our Related Keywords section (Keyword Research on SpyFu). It’s a great spot to include this metric (if we do say so ourselves) because it lets you skim a list of keyword suggestions in a particular niche and note the ones that will take more effort than the others.

That’s what they are at this point, right? They’re simply candidates to be part of your SEO efforts until you devote your work to targeting a few in particular.


That’s the point here. With paid ads, you can make the decision to add any keywords you’d like as simply as making your bid. For the same ad group, you’re adding 20 keywords just as easily as you would add 2 — in roughly the same period of time sitting at your computer. But for your SEO efforts, you’ve got to pick your battles.

Ranking difficulty addresses that head-on. You can weigh one keyword against another to get a sense of priority. For example, the “monthly link building” ranking difficulty score of 23 tells you that traditional SEO methods will help you rank higher on this keyword than what the same work would get you for “best link building” with a difficulty of 49.

Comparing keywords by SEO difficulty

That higher ranking difficulty score means that you should expect that keyword to take more quality backlinks, richer content, and more on-page and off-page signals on your part to rank on the first page of results than what you’d need to get the same ranking on a lower difficulty keyword. If time is a factor (and when isn’t it?) then you have to consider which keywords you can target first.

This is not to say that the payoff is the same, so there’s still plenty to consider. Still, this helps you craft your plan for which keywords you’ll spend more time working on.

Here’s an example of a higher (more difficult) score. Ranking on “irs back taxes” — where many .gov domains have a steadfast hold — is going to be a tough climb if you’re aiming for the first page. This keyword has 5 .gov/.edu pages within its top 50 results.

Ranking difficulty highlighted for the keyword irs back taxes in the keyword overview of SpyFu

Use it with your next search — easy peasy.

All it takes to find a keyword’s ranking difficulty score is to search that keyword in SpyFu. We’ve built the results into a few places already (see below), so no matter what you’re using to discover keywords, you can weigh them by their score.

Keyword Searches on SpyFu (Overview Tab)

  • Main keyword results (like when you search a term like “cross fit”)
  • Profitable Related Keywords
  • Organic Search Ranking Analysis
Ranking difficulty highlighted in the keyword overview of SpyFu SpyFu ranking difficulty continued SpyFu's ranking difficulty tool

Keyword SmartSearch

This is an extension of “Profitable Related Keywords” from the overview tab, so if you’re at the bottom of that section and click “view more” you will get to this page.

You can also start with the SmartSearch page by typing in a keyword, and the suggestions include the ranking difficulty score shown here as a column for “SEO Difficulty.”

Domain Results

SEO keywords tab

You can still find the Ranking Difficulty metric included in a domain’s list of SEO keywords. Keep in mind that it is a keyword-specific stat, so it won’t change from one domain to another. Imagine reviewing a competitor’s keyword list for content ideas and being able to gauge them at a glance by how committed you’d have to be to rank on them yourself.


A little background about the Ranking Difficulty Metric

How we get it

While the .gov page-count is not the only thing driving this difficulty score, it’s certainly a big reason. Let’s look at other factors that go into it.

Ranking difficulty takes into account the strength of the domains, on-page signals like “keyword in title,” and the number of .gov and .edu domains. We combined these, and other factors, into the difficulty score as a way of gauging how competitive the keyword is and how other domains won’t be so easily pushed out of first page results.

The ranking difficulty score is just for preliminary purposes. Once a keyword makes your cut, you can drill into the overview for the Organic Search Ranking Analysis section. There, you’ll find a breakdown of the ranking content in the top 50 results and the different elements that we’ve been weighing:

  • Number of home pages
  • number of .gov/.edu pages
  • How many have the keyword in their title
  • How many have the keyword in their URL
  • Domain diversity (Is one domain dominating the results?)

Knowing those details about a keyword and the domains that fight for it, we can give you an idea of how much work it’s going to take to break into the top positions. Not every keyword comes with an obvious giant to topple, either. Look through the following factors for more obstacles to overcome (or tips to include in your SEO).

Why do these factors matter?

We studied SERP after SERP in our search for the most telling indicators of where you have a good shot and others where you’re taking on strongholds.

(If you’re the kind of person who loves a healthy dose of data, I recommend this blog post where Mike Roberts explained how he singled out the key ranking factors.)

In that review, Mike found that the most important on-page factors were (1) the result being a home page and (2) the keyword being included in the URL (root domain). Notice our first two factors we include in Ranking Difficulty:

Number of home pages

A domain’s home page (root domain) in the search results would be vs. We added this into our Ranking Difficulty figure because as a general rule, Google often considers home pages to be more dedicated to the topic, or more authoritative. The more you find in a SERP, the more difficult it is to rank on this keyword.

Why the URL and page title matter

Specifically it’s having the keyword in the URL and title that matters. This measures the numbers of results in the SERP where the exact keyword is in the page’s title. You search for “brain exercises” and find that this #6 ranked result has the keyword in its title and in its URL.

SpyFu ranking change feature

In the results grid you can skim the titles for keywords for a sense of how much on-page optimization plays a role in ranking on this keyword.

Page Types and Domain Diversity

As we mentioned earlier, Google tends to give .gov and edu. pages more authority on some keywords.  Expect these government resources to own the highest positions. For example, thousands of law firms compete on the keyword “mesothelioma”, but no matter how much SEO they do, they’ll probably have trouble moving the and out of position

An increase of .gov/.edu pages in the top results tells us that the rest of us would face a bigger challenge to bump them from their positions.

Domain diversity helps you see if one domain (regardless of page type) has multiple pages in the results. If one domain dominates the top 50 results for this keyword, the diversity is low. High domain diversity includes a variety of results. Low diversity could mean that you’ve got a giant in the results, and they’re not easy to topple. Don’t write it off, though. We also include the Domain Strength score in these results to help you make sense of what you’re up against:

A strong domain (Domain Strength score is closer to 100) consistently ranks on top searches. It pulls in high amounts of quality traffic, and it carries high authority across many competitive keywords.

We know there’s not enough “you” to go around. Ranking difficulty is part of many helpful tools built into SpyFu that can help you evaluate keywords. Turn the thousands of keywords you’re hit with throughout your research into a targeted list.  


  • Jonathan larson

    Nice post, I will defiantly look into this spyfu software.

  • Adam Lundquist

    Excellent article:-) I use SpyFU much more for PPC than for SEO (since I pretty much only do PPC). I love how easy it is to use and that it is much more than “just a thesaurus”. I know in the article you talk about gut-check which makes sense to me, but how do I use SpyFu to check their competitive history?

    • AgentSidra

      I’m glad you liked it, Adam. And great question about competitive history. We just recently updated Organic Ranking History
      to make it more effective. You can see how different advertisers ranked
      on the same keyword over time (you set the time frame), alongside Google
      algorithm updates.

      If a Panda update knocked down one or two domains
      but didn’t really hurt other competitors, you can see that in a snap. There’s more on this page: