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How to Estimate Your Chances to Rank

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How to Estimate Your Chances to Rank

It’s easy to find keywords that can bring lots of traffic to your website. What’s harder is to predict your chances of ranking for them.

To help solve this problem, SEO tools like Ahrefs give keywords a “difficulty” score from 0 to 100.

But the truth is that these scores aren’t foolproof.

So in this post, I’m going to outline the benefits and shortcomings of the Keyword Difficulty metric, as well as break down what other things professional SEOs look at when estimating their chances to rank for a given keyword.

What is keyword difficulty?

Keyword Difficulty (KD) is an SEO metric that estimates how hard it would be to rank on the first page of Google for a given keyword. It is measured on a scale from 0 to 100, with the latter being the hardest to rank for.

Keywords Explorer overview of "best backpack," which has a KD of 42

However, when many SEO professionals use the term “keyword difficulty,” they’re referring to the broader concept of ranking difficulty—not a particular metric in a particular SEO tool.

Keyword difficulty as a metric

Almost every keyword research tool has a keyword difficulty score. These tools all use the same 0-100 scale, but each one calculates it differently.

If you check the keyword difficulty of the same keywords in different SEO tools, the numbers will vary quite substantially:

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Table showing KD scores for various keywords vary for each toolTable showing KD scores for various keywords vary for each tool

That is why it is important to understand how exactly the ranking difficulty is calculated by your SEO tool of choice. Only then can you make informed decisions based on it.

Here at Ahrefs, we use a simple method for calculating KD. We pull the top 10 ranking pages for your keyword and look up how many websites link to each of them. The more links the top-ranking pages for your keyword have, the higher its KD score. Very simple and very actionable.

SERP overview for "best backpack" SERP overview for "best backpack"

Keyword Difficulty in Ahrefs is based on linking domains to top-ranking pages.

Using more factors for calculating Keyword Difficulty

Many SEOs who use Ahrefs have been asking us to consider more factors when calculating our KD metric:

Well, let’s say we decided to include Domain Rating (DR) in our calculation. Here’s what happens if we take two hypothetical keywords:

  • Keyword #1 – Has pages from DR 80+ websites ranking in the top 10, but none has any backlinks
  • Keyword #2 – Has pages from DR <40 websites in the top 10, but each of them has 40+ backlinks

Which of these keywords should have a higher KD? And by how much?

If you ask a few dozen SEOs to manually score these two keywords on a scale from 0 to 100, their estimates will be very different. That’s because each SEO professional will distribute the “weights” of DR and page-level backlinks differently when blending them into a single KD score.

So by adding just one additional variable (DR), we’re causing a great deal of controversy to the calculation of KD and making it quite unintuitive.

Hopefully, that explains why we decided to keep our KD metric super simple and only use the backlinks of the top-ranking pages to calculate it.

This way, you know exactly what you’re looking at when applying a KD filter to your list of keywords. It gives you a straightforward benchmark of how many backlinks the top-ranking pages for each keyword have:

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  • KD 0-5 – Top-ranking pages barely have any backlinks
  • KD ~50 – Top-ranking pages have a couple of hundred backlinks
  • KD 90+ – Top-ranking pages have thousands of backlinks

But backlinks aren’t the only ranking factor. If you want to properly gauge your chances of ranking for a given keyword, you need to go further and do a more thorough analysis of the SERP.

Speaking of which…

Keyword difficulty as a concept

Nobody knows exactly how Google ranks pages. But we do know the main things that matter for ranking well. And by analyzing those “main things,” SEOs can get a pretty good idea of what it takes to rank on Google for a given keyword.

So here’s how they do it.

1. Figure out how many backlinks you’ll need

Backlinks act as votes, which tell Google that a given page is more valuable than any other page on the same topic. So, as a general rule, if you want to rank in the top 10 search results for a given keyword, you’ll have to acquire as many backlinks as the current top-ranking pages have (if not more).

In Ahrefs’ Keywords Explorer, we actually have a text hint right under our KD score that tells you an approximate number of backlinks you’ll need:

Keywords Explorer overview of "best backpack"; notably, there's a text hint below the KD scoreKeywords Explorer overview of "best backpack"; notably, there's a text hint below the KD score

Two important caveats here:

  1. The hint says “to rank in the top 10,” which means that getting as many (or more) backlinks as your competitors won’t guarantee that you’ll rank #1. But there’s a very good chance that you’ll rank somewhere in the top 10.
  2. The sheer quantity of backlinks can often be misleading because some backlinks cast a stronger vote than others. So this number is merely an estimation.

To properly estimate the strength of the backlink profiles of the top-ranking pages, you’ll have to review all their backlinks manually, i.e., do a backlink audit of these pages.

In Keywords Explorer, we’ve created a handy shortcut for this, since each number in the “SERP Overview” links to its respective backlink report in Ahrefs’ Site Explorer:

SERP overview for "best backpack" SERP overview for "best backpack"

Click these numbers (in the highlighted columns) to manually review backlinks.

2. Review the “authority” of your competitors

Many SEOs believe that Google often gives preference to pages that belong to big, popular websites. So if there are lots of these on a SERP, they recommend you to stay away—unless your website is just as big and famous.

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And while we don’t necessarily agree with such an assessment, we do think it may be quite useful to peek at how authoritative the top-ranking websites are.

Google itself has consistently denied that it uses any form of sitewide authority metric in its ranking algorithm. But I can think of at least two ways how a high website authority can indirectly contribute toward a higher ranking on Google:

A. Internal links

High DR means that a given website has lots of strong pages with high authority. And the page that you see ranking on Google may be receiving lots of “link juice” from such pages, making it a high-authority page too (even in the absence of backlinks from other websites).

B. Familiar brand

When presented with a list of search results, many people will prefer to click on the websites that are familiar to them. Google is allegedly tracking some “behavioral factors” to better understand if people were satisfied with the search results. And that can lead to “familiar websites” getting a ranking preference because that is what searchers want to get.

3. Investigate the search intent

Your ability to address the search intent is of utmost importance for ranking well on Google. In case you’re unfamiliar with the term, search intent is basically the expectation that searchers have. Google’s goal is to fulfill people’s expectations when they perform a search.

Many marketers (including our own Joshua Hardwick) tend to group all searches into four distinct search intent buckets: informational, navigational, transactional, and commercial.

But I’m not a big fan of that approach.

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Let me give an example. Instead of trying to figure out if the search query “backlink checker” is informational, navigational, or transactional (and what that means for your page anyway), it is much more productive to review the actual top-ranking pages for that keyword and analyze what searchers get from them.

SERP overview for "backlink checker" SERP overview for "backlink checker"

As you can tell from the screenshot above, all the top-ranking pages for the keyword “backlink checker” are free online tools. So the search intent of this keyword is “a free online tool to check backlinks.”

Thus, if you try to target this keyword with a blog article or a landing page, it won’t work.

I know this for a fact because we actually tried it.

Organic traffic for our "backlink checker" page increased after we nailed search intent Organic traffic for our "backlink checker" page increased after we nailed search intent

Above is the graph of organic search traffic to our backlink checker page.

Before the end of 2019, it was just a simple landing page explaining that Ahrefs has a backlink checker tool and offering people to sign up for our paid trial. No matter how much we optimized that page, it never ranked higher than #8 for that keyword.

Then we studied the pages that were outranking us and realized that all of them were free online tools. And as soon as we converted our landing page into a free tool, it shot up to #1 for the keyword “backlink checker” and started ranking high for many other relevant keywords.

Infographic showing the before (landing page) and after (page to use free tool) versions of our "backlink checker" page Infographic showing the before (landing page) and after (page to use free tool) versions of our "backlink checker" page

So instead of trying to decide if the search intent of your keyword is “transactional” or “informational,” just browse the top-ranking pages and figure out what exactly people expect to get from it.

4. Gauge the quality of content

The famous Skyscraper technique has led lots of content marketers astray by suggesting that a longer and more detailed article equals a better article.

But just making your article longer doesn’t necessarily make it better. A better article is one that provides more value in less time (and without boring you to death).

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So here are some pointers that will help you gauge the quality of content that already ranks at the top for your target keyword:

  1. Does it provide accurate and up-to-date information?
  2. Is it written by a subject matter expert?
  3. Does it contain unique information?
  4. Is it well-written?
  5. Is it properly formatted?
  6. Is it well-designed?

The first three are the most important ones. Google wants to provide its users with accurate information that comes from credible sources. We know that for a fact because the latest edition of its Search Quality Rater Guidelines has lots of focus on the concept called E-A-T, which stands for expertise, authoritativeness, and trustworthiness.

So instead of making your pages longer than those of your competitors, try investing in E-A-T.

What is a good Keyword Difficulty to target?

As with many things in SEO, the answer is it depends:

  • On the authority of your website.
  • On your credibility in a given space.
  • On your ability to acquire backlinks.
  • On whether you have the ability and/or resources to cater to search intent.
  • Etc.

A good exercise that may help you get used to Ahrefs’ KD metric is to look up the KD scores of the keywords that your website is already ranking for.

You can do this by entering your website into Ahrefs’ Site Explorer and visiting the Organic keywords report:

Organic keywords report for Ahrefs' blog showing KD scores of keywords  Organic keywords report for Ahrefs' blog showing KD scores of keywords

This gives you a nice benchmark. But it’s by no means a substitute for the process I’ve outlined above. If you want to accurately estimate your chances of ranking for a given keyword, you should thoroughly study the top-ranking pages and factor in your own skills and resources.

And please don’t shy away from targeting high-KD keywords. When it comes to many of the KD 70+ keywords that we rank for today, it took us four to five rewrites, lots of promotion, and many years of patience to get there. So the sooner you “attack” a high-KD keyword that you really want to rank for, the sooner you’ll get there.

Final thoughts

It would be quite awesome to have a keyword difficulty metric that could accurately predict your chances of ranking for a given keyword. But as you can probably tell by now, such a metric doesn’t exist.

So the only way for you to make the right SEO bets is by thoroughly studying the search results for the keywords that you want to rank for.

I hope the process I’ve outlined above is helpful for you. And if you have any further questions, feel free to ping me on Twitter.

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8 Pillar Page Examples to Get Inspired By

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8 Pillar Page Examples to Get Inspired By

Pillar pages are high-level introductions to a topic. They then link to other pages, which are usually more detailed guides about parts of the main topic.

Altogether, they form a content hub.

Example of a content hub

But not all pillar pages look the same. 

In this guide, we’ll look at eight examples of pillar pages to get your creative juices flowing.

Excerpt of beginner's guide to SEO by Ahrefs

Key stats

Estimated organic traffic: 1,200
Backlinks: 6,900
Referring domains: 899

Overview of Ahrefs' beginner's guide to SEO in Ahrefs' Site Explorer

This is our very own pillar page, covering the broad topic of search engine optimization (SEO)

Why I like it

Besides the fact that I’m biased, I like the custom design we created for this page, which makes it different from the articles on our blog. 

Even though the design is custom, our pillar page is still a pretty classic “hub and spoke” style pillar page. We’ve broken the topic down neatly into six different chapters and internally linked to guides we’ve created about them. There are also custom animations when you hover over each chapter:

Examples of chapters in the SEO guide

We’ve also added a glossary section that comes with a custom illustration of the SERPs. We have explanations of what each element means, with internal links to more detailed content:

Custom illustration of the SERP

Finally, it links to another “pillar page”: our SEO glossary

Takeaway

Consider creating a custom design for your pillar page so that it stands out. 

Excerpt of Doctor Diet's ketogenic diet guide

Key stats

Estimated organic traffic: 92,200
Backlinks: 21,600
Referring domains: 1,700

Overview of Diet Doctor's ketogenic diet guide in Ahrefs' Site Explorer

Diet Doctor is a health company focusing on low-carb diets. Its pillar page is a comprehensive guide on the keto diet. 

Why I like it

On the surface, it doesn’t exactly look like a pillar page; it looks like every other post on the Diet Doctor site. But that’s perfectly fine. It’s simply a different approach—you don’t have to call out the fact that it’s a pillar page. 

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Diet Doctor’s guide is split into 10 different sections with links to its own resources. The links bring you to different types of content (not just blog posts but videos too).

Video course about keto diet for beginners

Unlike the classic pillar page, Diet Doctor’s guide goes into enough detail for anyone who is casually researching the keto diet. But it also links to further resources for anyone who’s interested in doing additional research.

Takeaway

Pillar pages need not always just be text and links. Make it multimedia: You can add videos and images and even link to your own multimedia resources (e.g., a video course).

Excerpt of Wine Folly's beginner's guide to wine

Key stats

Estimated organic traffic: 5,600
Backlinks: 2,800
Referring domains: 247

Overview of Wine Folly's beginner's guide to wine in Ahrefs' Site Explorer

Wine Folly is a content site devoted to wine knowledge and appreciation. Its pillar page, as expected, is about wine. 

Why I like it

Wine Folly’s pillar page is a classic example of a “hub and spoke” style pillar page—split into multiple sections, with some supporting text, and then internal links to other resources that support each subsection. 

Supporting text and links to other resources

This page doesn’t just serve as a pillar page for ranking purposes, though. Given that it ranks well and receives quite a significant amount of search traffic, the page also has a call to action (CTA) to Wine Folly’s book:

Short description of book; below that, CTA encouraging site visitor to purchase it

Takeaway

While most websites design pillar pages for ranking, you can also use them for other purposes: capture email addresses, sell a book, pitch your product, etc. 

Excerpt of A-Z directory of yoga poses

Key stats

Estimated organic traffic: 11,100
Backlinks: 3,400
Referring domains: 457

Overview of Yoga Journal's A-Z directory of yoga poses in Ahrefs' Site Explorer

Yoga Journal is an online and offline magazine. Its pillar page is an A-Z directory of yoga poses.

Why I like it

Yoga Journal’s pillar page is straightforward and simple. List down all possible yoga poses (in both their English and Sanskrit names) in a table form and link to them. 

List of yoga poses in table form

Since it’s listed in alphabetical order, it’s useful for anyone who knows the name of a particular pose and is interested in learning more. 

What I also like is that Yoga Journal has added an extra column on the type of pose each yoga pose belongs to. If we click on any of the pose types, we’re directed to a category page where you can find similar kinds of poses: 

Examples of standing yoga poses (in grid format)

Takeaway

The A-Z format can be a good format for your pillar page if the broad topic you’re targeting fits the style (e.g., dance moves, freestyle football tricks, etc.).

Excerpt of Atlassian's guide to agile development

Key stats

Estimated organic traffic: 115,200
Backlinks: 3,200
Referring domains: 860

Overview of Atlassian's guide to agile development in Ahrefs' Site Explorer

Atlassian is a software company. You’ve probably heard of its products: Jira, Confluence, Trello, etc. Its pillar page is on agile development.

Why I like it

Atlassian’s pillar page is split into different topics related to agile development. It then has internal links to each topic—both as a sticky table of contents and card-style widgets after the introduction: 

Sticky table of contents
Card-style widgets

I also like the “Up next” feature at the bottom of the pillar page, which makes it seem like an online book rather than a page. 

Example of "Up next" feature

Takeaway

Consider adding a table of contents to your pillar page. 

Excerpt of Muscle and Strength's workout routines database

Key stats

Estimated organic traffic: 114,400
Backlinks: 2,900
Referring domains: 592

Overview of Muscle and Strength's workout routines database in Ahrefs' Site Explorer

Muscle and Strength’s pillar page is a massive database linking to various categories of workouts. 

Why I like it

Calling it a pillar page seems to be an understatement. Muscle and Strength’s free workouts page appears to be more like a website. 

When you open the page, you’ll see that it’s neatly split into multiple categories, such as “workouts for men,” “workouts for women,” “biceps,” “abs,” etc. 

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Workout categories (in grid format)

Clicking through to any of them leads us to a category page containing all sorts of workouts:

Types of workouts for men (in grid format)

Compared to the other pillar pages on this list, where they’re linking to other subpages, Muscle and Strength’s pillar page links to other category pages, which then link to their subpages, i.e., its massive archive of free workouts.

Takeaway

Content databases, such as the one above, are a huge undertaking for a pillar page but can be worth it if the broad topic you’re targeting fits a format like this. Ideally, the topic should be about something where the content for it is ever-growing (e.g., workout plans, recipes, email templates, etc.).

Excerpt of Tofugu's guide to learning Japanese

Key stats

Estimated organic traffic: 39,100
Backlinks: 1,100
Referring domains: 308

Overview of Tofugu's guide to learning Japanese in Ahrefs' Site Explorer

Tofugu is a site about learning Japanese. And its pillar page is about, well, learning Japanese.

Why I like it

This is an incredible (and yes, ridiculously good) guide to learning Japanese from scratch. It covers every stage you’ll go through as a complete beginner—from knowing no Japanese to having intermediate proficiency in the language. 

Unlike other pillar pages where information is usually scarce and simply links out to further resources, this page holds nothing back. Under each section, there is great detail about what that section is, why it’s important, how it works, and even an estimated time of how long that stage takes to complete. 

Another interesting aspect is how Tofugu has structured its internal links as active CTAs. Rather than “Learn more” or “Read more,” it’s all about encouraging users to do a task and completing that stage. 

CTA encouraging user to head to the next task of learning to read hiragana

Takeaway

Two takeaways here:

  • Pillar pages can be ridiculously comprehensive. It depends on the topic you’re targeting and how competitive it is.
  • CTAs can be more exciting than merely just “Read more.”
Excerpt of Zapier's guide to working remotely

Key stats

Estimated organic traffic: 890
Backlinks: 4,100
Referring domains: 1,100

Overview of Zapier's guide to working remotely in Ahrefs' Site Explorer

Zapier allows users to connect multiple software products together via “zaps.” It’s a 100% remote company, and its pillar page is about remote work. 

Why I like it

Zapier’s pillar page is basically like Wine Folly’s pillar page. Break a topic into subsections, add a couple of links of text, and then add internal links to further resources. 

In the examples above, we’ve seen all sorts of execution for pillar pages. There are those with custom designs and others that are crazily comprehensive.

But sometimes, all a pillar page needs is a simple design with links. 

Takeaway

If you already have a bunch of existing content on your website, you can create a simple pillar page like this to organize your content for your readers. 

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Keep learning

Inspired by these examples and want to create your own pillar page? Learn how to successfully do so with these two guides:

Any questions or comments? Let me know on Twitter.  



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