What are Semantic Frames? An Introduction

What are Semantic Frames? An Introduction


Semantic Frames are a way that search engines (and other machines) can add context to words and phrases. It is a fairly complex subject with lots of technical things involved in it. Fortunately, I can give you examples of some frame semantics in action and you should easily be able to get the gist of it.

If you would like to get into the more technical side of things, you can take a look at Bill Slawski’s “Semantic Frames and Word Embeddings at Google” article.

Frame Semantics In Action

Nicolas Cage's Knowledge Panel at GoogleLet’s start out simple. Nicolas Cage.

When you search for something on Google, you’ll sometimes see what we call a “Knowledge Panel” or things that are known about the entity you’re searching for. To the right, you’ll see Nick’s panel which features things that are known about him.

The way this works is that Google takes a term and tries to identify and classify it. In this case, Google starts by identifying Nicolas Cage as a “Person.” Within that “frame” of classification, there are certain things we can expect to learn. People have Birthdays. People (sometimes) have Spouses and Children and Siblings. People also usually have a Profession.

You’ll also notice that in this screenshot, our “frame” of Nicolas Cage has an “Event” attached to it. And that event has an “Award” attached to it. So now Google knows for all eternity that on June 9th, 2019, Nicolas Cage won the Contribution to the World Cinema Award at TIFF.

Because Mr. Cage is an Actor by profession, there are other elements that can be attached – like Movies he has Starred In (or Directed, or Written). TV Shows he may have been involved in. And so on.

Each of these individual entities have their own frames. National Treasure is a “Movie” – and as such, we can frame National Treasure with things like other “Actors” and the “Producers” and “Writers” and “Box office receipts” and all sorts of other frame elements that all movies have.

Now, we get into the fun stuff.

If you click on any of the clickable things in this knowledge panel, you can start to see how all of these little bits of information are connected to one another. For example, clink on Weston’s link and you get your vector of “Nicolas Cage > Children > Weston Coppola Cage” along with the rest of his children. Plus, we get what Google knows about Weston in his own info panel which replaces Nick’s.

Do the same with one of the Movies, and it changes to a top panel with “Nicolas Cage > Movies >” and the movie you selected.

As you can see by all this, Google uses semantic frames to not only classify things but to learn a wide variety of specific things about specific things – and how they relate to each other.

And now it gets really fun.

If you ask Google “What movie starred Nicolas Cage and Jennifer Beals”, because of all this information and and the framed elements it can give us the answer: Vampire’s Kiss.

The Next Level

Google has all sorts of information about People and Things and even Ideas that it can frame in the same way. Recipes have “ingredients” and “steps,” for example. Even abstract ideas have “origins” and other facets that can be organized and linked.

One thing that Google is doing now is using this type of technology to help validate claims. For example, let’s say I have a web site and I make the statement. “Coffee is good for you!” Through all this magic framing stuff – that statement gets broken down a bit and ends up looking something like this (for lack of a better way to represent it).

Coffee = Healthy

So now Google starts to flip through it’s understanding of Coffee to determine if the claim that it’s Healthy is true or not. Those of us who have been around for a while know that science seems to change its mind on this one every 8-10 years. In this case, though… Google seems to have found a general consensus.

Knowledge Panel showing health effects of coffee

Even with that general consensus, though… it’s not ready to go all-in on the bet. There is enough data out there to suggest that there may be other health effects as well – so it points that out for us in the panel to the right (image above).

If we change to something less researched and make a claim – Google is less willing to make an assumption. What if we were to make a claim that “Marijuana cures cancer.” If we ask Google if it does – it isn’t ready to commit. We don’t get any knowledge panels and the page of results is a mixture of sites claiming benefits, sites claiming it’s all hogwash, and everything in between.

How This Affects SEO

Because Google is getting better at determining facts and opinions, credibility is important. If you make a claim that “Pot Cures Cancer” then Google can use it’s ability to understand that claim and check it. It is going to decide that the jury is still out on the subject. There are a bunch of sites saying Yay, and a bunch of sites saying Nay. Therefore, it’s not really a valid claim.

On the other hand – you might say that “LungCancer.org says that Medical Marijuana can help in treating symptoms of cancer.” This is a less dubious claim, especially if you link to the authoritative article making the claim. There are two facets of this claim that are important. First, you’re not claiming that it necessarily “does” any of these things, you’re just pointing out that they are saying it. We’re also not curing cancer, but talking about how it can help symptoms which is a safer claim, too.

In a Nuthsell: Remember when you had to do term papers in school? You had to cite your sources when you made a claim. The web is more and more like that. When you want to make a claim, back it up with authoritative sources who agree with you. If you want to make a new claim, get several sources whose own findings could reasonably add up to the conclusion you’re coming to. This way,Google can figure out how your claim might fit into their frame of understanding about something. Plus, if you do this regularly, then one day you might become an authoritative source on the subject.

Update: (6/14/2019) I’ve gotten a little flack about focusing on outbound links without talking about inbound links. As a fundamental of SEO, inbound links are always going to be one of the most important elements of SEO. The strategy is evolving a bit – which we can look at in a future post – but for now, let’s suffice it to say: Yes, you need inbound links as well as outbound links. Outbound links are how you validate and back what you’re saying, Inbound links are signals that people agree with you. They also can provide information that can be attached to your semantic frame.

More on this subject in respects to the June 2019 Google Core UpdatePart One & Part Three (Part two of that series is more about Google local and search intent).

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