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What is keyword difficulty and why does it matter for SEO?

Author: Abby Gleason

an image of author Abby Gleason, accompanied by various search-related iconography, including a key icon, search volume chart, and search bar

At its core, SEO success relies on your keywords ranking on the first page in search engines, like Google.

Competition for those top 10 positions can be stiff—especially if your business is in a saturated market. When you’re building a keyword list, choosing topics you can realistically rank for is essential to driving organic traffic. If you target keywords that are too competitive for your website, search engines might not even show your content to users—resulting in wasted time and effort.

Proper keyword difficulty measurement is a crucial part of a successful SEO strategy. Here, I share my own framework (the Keyword Difficulty Assessment Matrix) for how to assess it more accurately, so you can feel confident that the pages you create will drive traffic.

Table of contents:

What is keyword difficulty and why is it important for SEO?

Keyword difficulty (or keyword “competition”) is a metric used to convey how challenging it might be to rank for a given keyword in organic search results.

Popular keyword research tools, like Ahrefs or Semrush, provide keyword difficulty figures as a number between 0–100, with 100 representing the most competitive keywords.

SEOs typically use keyword difficulty scores to quickly determine how “reasonable” a keyword is to target. They may weigh this difficulty score against the authority of their website to evaluate whether they actually have a shot of ranking high enough to attract clicks from the search results.

In general, if your website is highly authoritative (like Wikipedia or Healthline, for example), then a higher keyword difficulty score may not necessarily be as challenging for your website as it would be for one of your less authoritative competitors.

However, if you’re in the majority and work with a medium-to-low authority domain, accurately measuring keyword difficulty becomes much more important. You don’t want to waste your time creating content only to be buried on the fifth page of search results.

No—you want to be front and center on the first page, and choosing the right keywords is how you make this reality.

For example, if you’re a medium-sized business that sells furniture, trying to rank for [dining tables] may be a lost cause. You’re up against some of the most authoritative sites out there, and ranking among them will be difficult, if not impossible.

The top Google search results for “dining tables,” showing listings from highly authoritative brands like Pottery Barn, IKEA, West Elm, and Target.
The top Google search results for “dining tables” shows listings from highly authoritative brands.

However, a more specific keyword, like [space saving dining tables], shows a bit more opportunity. Yes, the term has lower search volume than its more generic counterpart, but it’s easier to rank for. Plus, that specificity means the shopper is likely closer to purchase (these types of keywords are often described as “high intent”).

As a rule of thumb, long-tail keywords tend to be less competitive than short-tail keywords. Here’s an example of this concept in action:

Chart defining the difference between short and long tail keywords. The short tail phrase “pizza” is the shortest phrase and highest competition. The 2-3 word phrase “pizza delivery” is medium competition, and “vegan pizza delivery in NY after midnight” is the lowest competition.

The phrase [pizza] is short tail (i.e., a short phrase that is likely highly competitive).

Longer, more specific variations of the short tail term (like [pizza delivery] or [vegan pizza delivery in NY after midnight]) are less competitive. Generally, more specific searches mean fewer competitors.

How keyword difficulty is calculated

Keyword research tools use a variety of parameters to inform their scores. Semrush, for example, shares its list of inputs and corresponding weighting:

Note: Different tools may use different methodologies to calculate keyword difficulty, so it’s always a good idea to research how each produces its scores. Doing so can help you understand how reliable those scores actually are.

While these numbers can provide a helpful starting point for your research, they shouldn’t be taken as fact. Keyword research tools’ metrics aren’t foolproof, and there are many factors that may not be included in the data.

Take seasonality, for example. It might be easier to rank for [buffalo chicken dip recipes] in July than in February, when the Super Bowl typically dominates pop culture in the US, and search results become saturated with publishers trying to capitalize on that traffic surge. Keyword tools might not capture that.

A screenshot of the Google Trends for the query “buffalo chicken dip recipes,” showing peaks around February every year for the last five years.
Google Trends shows that search interest for this query peaks around February every year in. Keyword difficulty scores do not reflect this nuance.

Or consider trending keywords. The term [chatGPT] showed zero search volume in keyword tools for months after its launch—and it took a while for the keyword difficulty score to reflect reality.

You should also evaluate how you use keyword difficulty scores from a collaborative perspective—including a difficulty score in your keyword list might confuse your content team. When I used to include scores in my keyword lists, I would get loads of questions:

  • “What do these numbers mean?”

  • “Are keywords that score below 30 good to go after?”

  • “What are the chances of ranking?”

These numbers tell your team next to nothing, so you’ll either have to explain these concepts or omit them when they’re just not relevant for those teammates/stakeholders.

The long and short of it is: Keyword research tools can only take you so far. Keyword difficulty needs context in order to be worth mentioning. It has to be more than “a number out of 100.”

Keyword difficulty scores are clearly an imperfect metric. As an SEO and/or website owner, you can look at a wider range of criteria to ensure that the keywords you’re trying to rank for are realistic. In the next section, I share my method for assessing and communicating keyword difficulty in a more intuitive way.

The Keyword Difficulty Assessment Matrix

Once you’ve done your keyword research and have a list of topics you want to potentially target, you’ll want to scrutinize those terms for difficulty, so you can prioritize the highest volume, lowest competition topics.

Accurately determining keyword difficulty involves reviewing the search engine results pages (SERPs) and explaining with words (not just numbers) how challenging ranking for that keyword will actually be.

I've created a keyword difficulty matrix to help explain the different difficulty levels to your team(s). You should adjust this with whatever language makes sense for your business, but I'd recommend keeping it clear and simple.

Ranking Difficulty



  • Top 10 search results do not all contain the primary keyword

  • Top 10 search results are mostly old content (2+ years old)

  • Top 10 search results contain different locales (e.g., ".uk" or ".au" sites in US results)

  • Clicking into competitor content shows mostly low-authority sites with poor experiences: intrusive ads, poor formatting, etc.


  • Top 10 search results mostly contain the primary keyword

  • Top 10 search results are a mix of high-authority and mid-to-low authority sites

  • Top 10 search results are a mix of recently published & old content (2+ years old)

  • Clicking into competitor content shows fairly well-optimized pages, with some opportunity for improvement


  • Top 10 search results all contain the target keyword & engaging titles

  • Top 10 search results are all high-authority websites (e.g., Mayo Clinic for a medical query)

  • Top 10 search results are all up to date (less than 2 years old)

  • Clicking into competitor content shows extremely well optimized pages, with little opportunity to improve

Closely examining the search results is a key part of what makes this process more effective and trustworthy. Instead of putting your sole trust in an SEO tool’s data, you’re rolling up your sleeves and seeing the search landscape for yourself. The result is a keyword list that you can target with an incredibly high degree of confidence.

I’ve created a handy Google Sheets template with this criteria that you can tweak and use for your own content strategy. I recommend including these guidelines in your keyword list to clarify how you measure keyword difficulty, and to help your team do the same.

Tools to help you determine keyword difficulty

While I’m a proponent of adding manual research to your workflow, I’m also a huge fan of using tools to speed things along where possible (and without sacrificing data integrity).


Thruuu’s free SERP analyzer tool lets you scrape (extract data from) Google’s search results for any keyword. Analyze up to 100 Google results and find on-page data points (like competitors’ content structure) for a quick, accurate analysis.

I love that Thruuu is free, and has a clear, easy-to-use interface to quickly assess the search results.

An image of Thruuu’s SERP analyzer.


Frase is a paid content optimization tool with a helpful SERP analysis feature that shows you key components of competitor pages including page titles, headings, and word count. I especially love that it shows the most popular topics used throughout competing articles—this can be very helpful context when writing your own content.

An image of Frase’s SERP analyzer.


Apify’s free Google search results scraper enables you to extract organic and paid results, ads, queries, People Also Ask, prices, reviews, and more.

My favorite thing about this tool is that you can scrape the results for multiple keywords at once, instead of one at a time (which is a limitation on Thruuu and Frase).

GIF of Apify’s Google Search Results Scraper.

Ahrefs & Semrush

Ahrefs and Semrush both offer a “SERP overview” report that shows the top 10 results for your target keyword, including metrics like backlinks and estimated traffic.

A screenshot showing Semrush’s SERP Analysis report for the keyword “space saving dining tables.” The top results are from domains like, Amazon, Wayfair, Target, Ikea, and There are also columns of data for referring domains, backlinks, search traffic, and URL keywords.
Semrush’s SERP Analysis report for the keyword “space saving dining tables.”

As mentioned above, these tools do offer their own assessment of keyword difficulty by providing a score for each keyword. Even though I don’t recommend relying on their keyword difficulty metrics without additional research, those numbers can provide a helpful benchmark to kickstart your process.

Build a keyword list you can feel confident in

Assessing keyword difficulty may feel tedious at times. The manual portion of this research does indeed take more time than exporting a spreadsheet from a keyword tool. But, I assure you, a more contextualized, meticulous method makes up for the effort with accuracy. You’ll have a high degree of certainty that these keywords are good opportunities for your business—which can go a very long way in ensuring that you (and your teammates) use your time and resources most impactfully.


Abby Gleason

Abby Gleason is a content-focused SEO with 6+ years experience leading successful organic search strategies for SaaS and eCommerce brands. She loves to share her learnings and has been published on Moz, Semrush, Search Engine Land and more. Twitter | Linkedin


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