On Jan. 15, Facebook announced the addition of a new feature that could drastically change the way people use the nation's most popular social networking website.

The feature, a natural-language search tool called Graph Search, was launched as a limited beta -- not all Facebook content can be searched yet, and only a limited group of people have been accepted to try the feature.

Seen by some as a potentially big change in the social media landscape, some forward-looking government IT offices are asking how they can harness the change to help their communities and stay on the cutting edge of technology.

“The Facebook Graph Search is a different way of using Facebook,” said Brian Blau, a research director for Gartner who recently received access to the beta. “It changes your Facebook user interface. It puts search front and center.”

Currently Graph Search only allows users to search for people, places, interests and photos, but Facebook will likely expand the search to include everything on Facebook, Blau said, adding that the company will likely release an API and other tools that will allow organizations to keep better track of data.

“The nature of search is changing,” Blau said. “All of a sudden, hundreds of millions of people are going to have access to what is very sophisticated technology.”

Just as astronauts used natural language to interface with Hal 9000, the sophisticated flight computer in the 1968 science fiction epic 2001: A Space Odyssey, people are now issuing voice commands to their Apple devices via Siri -- and soon people will be able to ask Facebook a question like, “Where is the best place to hold a meeting for my book club in Syracuse?”

The feature, Blau said, has great potential for government organizations that are willing to do the social media legwork. A search engine is only as good as the information it indexes, he said, so governments that want to get the most out of the feature will need to do more than just create a Facebook page and forget about it -- agencies will need to build content tailored to the interests of residents and work on maintaining those relationships.

Governments also will have to keep a strong foothold in traditional search engines, as Facebook Graph Search isn't intended to replace Google. But there will be new opportunities for engagement, said Bill Greeves, CIO of Wake County, N.C.

Though Greeves hasn't yet been accepted to try the tool, he said he does see some opportunities for his organization. “If you got down to the point where, as an agency, you were including granular content, it might help match people up with your resources,” he said.

For instance, a government could create a Facebook page for each of its national parks, and as people looked for places to participate in the activities they enjoy, such as mountain biking or hiking, people would see those parks appear in their search results as liked and recommended by their friends.

Because the Graph Search tool revolves around finding things based on what your friends like, one of the hurdles with government and social media is getting people engaged with their government in the first place, Greeves said. Citizens typically aren't clamoring to be a part of their local government, and that's not what Facebook is traditionally used for, he said, but there will likely be opportunities for government to get more involved. “I like that they're combining the social element with the data element,” Greeves said. “That's definitely unique.”

Not only will Facebook Graph Search allow people to find what they're looking for more easily, it will also help government better understand its populace and improve the services offered, said David Sullivan, IT director of Norfolk, Va. Though Sullivan hasn't yet been accepted into the Graph Search beta, he said he's eager to try it because he's a big proponent of searching in general -- if a good search function gets you to the content you're looking for, he said, then you don't need anything else.

“Your Facebook is a community of people who have chosen to engage with you, and that in and of itself makes them very valuable,” Sullivan said. “The challenge for local government, as the budgets get smaller, is to really focus on the services our community values most. Facebook communities take the time to engage, so their opinions are worth understanding and I think the Graph Search tool will give us some capabilities to really better understand what's happening.”

Image via Facebook

Colin Wood  |  Staff Writer

Colin has been writing for Government Technology since 2010. He lives in Seattle with his wife and their dog.