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How to Estimate Your Chances to Rank

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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.

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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:

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:

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  • 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:

  • 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.

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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.

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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.

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.

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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).

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.

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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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Measuring Content Impact Across The Customer Journey

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Measuring Content Impact Across The Customer Journey

Understanding the impact of your content at every touchpoint of the customer journey is essential – but that’s easier said than done. From attracting potential leads to nurturing them into loyal customers, there are many touchpoints to look into.

So how do you identify and take advantage of these opportunities for growth?

Watch this on-demand webinar and learn a comprehensive approach for measuring the value of your content initiatives, so you can optimize resource allocation for maximum impact.

You’ll learn:

  • Fresh methods for measuring your content’s impact.
  • Fascinating insights using first-touch attribution, and how it differs from the usual last-touch perspective.
  • Ways to persuade decision-makers to invest in more content by showcasing its value convincingly.

With Bill Franklin and Oliver Tani of DAC Group, we unravel the nuances of attribution modeling, emphasizing the significance of layering first-touch and last-touch attribution within your measurement strategy. 

Check out these insights to help you craft compelling content tailored to each stage, using an approach rooted in first-hand experience to ensure your content resonates.

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Whether you’re a seasoned marketer or new to content measurement, this webinar promises valuable insights and actionable tactics to elevate your SEO game and optimize your content initiatives for success. 

View the slides below or check out the full webinar for all the details.

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How to Find and Use Competitor Keywords

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How to Find and Use Competitor Keywords

Competitor keywords are the keywords your rivals rank for in Google’s search results. They may rank organically or pay for Google Ads to rank in the paid results.

Knowing your competitors’ keywords is the easiest form of keyword research. If your competitors rank for or target particular keywords, it might be worth it for you to target them, too.

There is no way to see your competitors’ keywords without a tool like Ahrefs, which has a database of keywords and the sites that rank for them. As far as we know, Ahrefs has the biggest database of these keywords.

How to find all the keywords your competitor ranks for

  1. Go to Ahrefs’ Site Explorer
  2. Enter your competitor’s domain
  3. Go to the Organic keywords report

The report is sorted by traffic to show you the keywords sending your competitor the most visits. For example, Mailchimp gets most of its organic traffic from the keyword “mailchimp.”

Mailchimp gets most of its organic traffic from the keyword, “mailchimp”.Mailchimp gets most of its organic traffic from the keyword, “mailchimp”.

Since you’re unlikely to rank for your competitor’s brand, you might want to exclude branded keywords from the report. You can do this by adding a Keyword > Doesn’t contain filter. In this example, we’ll filter out keywords containing “mailchimp” or any potential misspellings:

Filtering out branded keywords in Organic keywords reportFiltering out branded keywords in Organic keywords report

If you’re a new brand competing with one that’s established, you might also want to look for popular low-difficulty keywords. You can do this by setting the Volume filter to a minimum of 500 and the KD filter to a maximum of 10.

Finding popular, low-difficulty keywords in Organic keywordsFinding popular, low-difficulty keywords in Organic keywords

How to find keywords your competitor ranks for, but you don’t

  1. Go to Competitive Analysis
  2. Enter your domain in the This target doesn’t rank for section
  3. Enter your competitor’s domain in the But these competitors do section
Competitive analysis reportCompetitive analysis report

Hit “Show keyword opportunities,” and you’ll see all the keywords your competitor ranks for, but you don’t.

Content gap reportContent gap report

You can also add a Volume and KD filter to find popular, low-difficulty keywords in this report.

Volume and KD filter in Content gapVolume and KD filter in Content gap

How to find keywords multiple competitors rank for, but you don’t

  1. Go to Competitive Analysis
  2. Enter your domain in the This target doesn’t rank for section
  3. Enter the domains of multiple competitors in the But these competitors do section
Competitive analysis report with multiple competitorsCompetitive analysis report with multiple competitors

You’ll see all the keywords that at least one of these competitors ranks for, but you don’t.

Content gap report with multiple competitorsContent gap report with multiple competitors

You can also narrow the list down to keywords that all competitors rank for. Click on the Competitors’ positions filter and choose All 3 competitors:

Selecting all 3 competitors to see keywords all 3 competitors rank forSelecting all 3 competitors to see keywords all 3 competitors rank for
  1. Go to Ahrefs’ Site Explorer
  2. Enter your competitor’s domain
  3. Go to the Paid keywords report
Paid keywords reportPaid keywords report

This report shows you the keywords your competitors are targeting via Google Ads.

Since your competitor is paying for traffic from these keywords, it may indicate that they’re profitable for them—and could be for you, too.

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You know what keywords your competitors are ranking for or bidding on. But what do you do with them? There are basically three options.

1. Create pages to target these keywords

You can only rank for keywords if you have content about them. So, the most straightforward thing you can do for competitors’ keywords you want to rank for is to create pages to target them.

However, before you do this, it’s worth clustering your competitor’s keywords by Parent Topic. This will group keywords that mean the same or similar things so you can target them all with one page.

Here’s how to do that:

  1. Export your competitor’s keywords, either from the Organic Keywords or Content Gap report
  2. Paste them into Keywords Explorer
  3. Click the “Clusters by Parent Topic” tab
Clustering keywords by Parent TopicClustering keywords by Parent Topic

For example, MailChimp ranks for keywords like “what is digital marketing” and “digital marketing definition.” These and many others get clustered under the Parent Topic of “digital marketing” because people searching for them are all looking for the same thing: a definition of digital marketing. You only need to create one page to potentially rank for all these keywords.

Keywords under the cluster of "digital marketing"Keywords under the cluster of "digital marketing"

2. Optimize existing content by filling subtopics

You don’t always need to create new content to rank for competitors’ keywords. Sometimes, you can optimize the content you already have to rank for them.

How do you know which keywords you can do this for? Try this:

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  1. Export your competitor’s keywords
  2. Paste them into Keywords Explorer
  3. Click the “Clusters by Parent Topic” tab
  4. Look for Parent Topics you already have content about

For example, if we analyze our competitor, we can see that seven keywords they rank for fall under the Parent Topic of “press release template.”

Our competitor ranks for seven keywords that fall under the "press release template" clusterOur competitor ranks for seven keywords that fall under the "press release template" cluster

If we search our site, we see that we already have a page about this topic.

Site search finds that we already have a blog post on press release templatesSite search finds that we already have a blog post on press release templates

If we click the caret and check the keywords in the cluster, we see keywords like “press release example” and “press release format.”

Keywords under the cluster of "press release template"Keywords under the cluster of "press release template"

To rank for the keywords in the cluster, we can probably optimize the page we already have by adding sections about the subtopics of “press release examples” and “press release format.”

3. Target these keywords with Google Ads

Paid keywords are the simplest—look through the report and see if there are any relevant keywords you might want to target, too.

For example, Mailchimp is bidding for the keyword “how to create a newsletter.”

Mailchimp is bidding for the keyword “how to create a newsletter”Mailchimp is bidding for the keyword “how to create a newsletter”

If you’re ConvertKit, you may also want to target this keyword since it’s relevant.

If you decide to target the same keyword via Google Ads, you can hover over the magnifying glass to see the ads your competitor is using.

Mailchimp's Google Ad for the keyword “how to create a newsletter”Mailchimp's Google Ad for the keyword “how to create a newsletter”

You can also see the landing page your competitor directs ad traffic to under the URL column.

The landing page Mailchimp is directing traffic to for “how to create a newsletter”The landing page Mailchimp is directing traffic to for “how to create a newsletter”

Learn more

Check out more tutorials on how to do competitor keyword analysis:

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Google Confirms Links Are Not That Important

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Google confirms that links are not that important anymore

Google’s Gary Illyes confirmed at a recent search marketing conference that Google needs very few links, adding to the growing body of evidence that publishers need to focus on other factors. Gary tweeted confirmation that he indeed say those words.

Background Of Links For Ranking

Links were discovered in the late 1990’s to be a good signal for search engines to use for validating how authoritative a website is and then Google discovered soon after that anchor text could be used to provide semantic signals about what a webpage was about.

One of the most important research papers was Authoritative Sources in a Hyperlinked Environment by Jon M. Kleinberg, published around 1998 (link to research paper at the end of the article). The main discovery of this research paper is that there is too many web pages and there was no objective way to filter search results for quality in order to rank web pages for a subjective idea of relevance.

The author of the research paper discovered that links could be used as an objective filter for authoritativeness.

Kleinberg wrote:

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“To provide effective search methods under these conditions, one needs a way to filter, from among a huge collection of relevant pages, a small set of the most “authoritative” or ‘definitive’ ones.”

This is the most influential research paper on links because it kick-started more research on ways to use links beyond as an authority metric but as a subjective metric for relevance.

Objective is something factual. Subjective is something that’s closer to an opinion. The founders of Google discovered how to use the subjective opinions of the Internet as a relevance metric for what to rank in the search results.

What Larry Page and Sergey Brin discovered and shared in their research paper (The Anatomy of a Large-Scale Hypertextual Web Search Engine – link at end of this article) was that it was possible to harness the power of anchor text to determine the subjective opinion of relevance from actual humans. It was essentially crowdsourcing the opinions of millions of website expressed through the link structure between each webpage.

What Did Gary Illyes Say About Links In 2024?

At a recent search conference in Bulgaria, Google’s Gary Illyes made a comment about how Google doesn’t really need that many links and how Google has made links less important.

Patrick Stox tweeted about what he heard at the search conference:

” ‘We need very few links to rank pages… Over the years we’ve made links less important.’ @methode #serpconf2024″

Google’s Gary Illyes tweeted a confirmation of that statement:

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“I shouldn’t have said that… I definitely shouldn’t have said that”

Why Links Matter Less

The initial state of anchor text when Google first used links for ranking purposes was absolutely non-spammy, which is why it was so useful. Hyperlinks were primarily used as a way to send traffic from one website to another website.

But by 2004 or 2005 Google was using statistical analysis to detect manipulated links, then around 2004 “powered-by” links in website footers stopped passing anchor text value, and by 2006 links close to the words “advertising” stopped passing link value, links from directories stopped passing ranking value and by 2012 Google deployed a massive link algorithm called Penguin that destroyed the rankings of likely millions of websites, many of which were using guest posting.

The link signal eventually became so bad that Google decided in 2019 to selectively use nofollow links for ranking purposes. Google’s Gary Illyes confirmed that the change to nofollow was made because of the link signal.

Google Explicitly Confirms That Links Matter Less

In 2023 Google’s Gary Illyes shared at a PubCon Austin that links were not even in the top 3 of ranking factors. Then in March 2024, coinciding with the March 2024 Core Algorithm Update, Google updated their spam policies documentation to downplay the importance of links for ranking purposes.

Google March 2024 Core Update: 4 Changes To Link Signal

The documentation previously said:

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“Google uses links as an important factor in determining the relevancy of web pages.”

The update to the documentation that mentioned links was updated to remove the word important.

Links are not just listed as just another factor:

“Google uses links as a factor in determining the relevancy of web pages.”

At the beginning of April Google’s John Mueller advised that there are more useful SEO activities to engage on than links.

Mueller explained:

“There are more important things for websites nowadays, and over-focusing on links will often result in you wasting your time doing things that don’t make your website better overall”

Finally, Gary Illyes explicitly said that Google needs very few links to rank webpages and confirmed it.

Why Google Doesn’t Need Links

The reason why Google doesn’t need many links is likely because of the extent of AI and natural language undertanding that Google uses in their algorithms. Google must be highly confident in its algorithm to be able to explicitly say that they don’t need it.

Way back when Google implemented the nofollow into the algorithm there were many link builders who sold comment spam links who continued to lie that comment spam still worked. As someone who started link building at the very beginning of modern SEO (I was the moderator of the link building forum at the #1 SEO forum of that time), I can say with confidence that links have stopped playing much of a role in rankings beginning several years ago, which is why I stopped about five or six years ago.

Read the research papers

Authoritative Sources in a Hyperlinked Environment – Jon M. Kleinberg (PDF)

The Anatomy of a Large-Scale Hypertextual Web Search Engine

Featured Image by Shutterstock/RYO Alexandre

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