6 Tips for Writing Better VLOOKUPs

Posted on November 2nd, 2010 in Learn Excel - 35 comments

This article is part of our VLOOKUP Week. Read more.

Ok, you have learned how to write vlookup formulas. You have also seen some pretty interesting examples of it (1, 2).

But how do you write better VLOOKUP formulas?

Write better VLOOKUP Formulas - 6 tips

Here is a list of 6 tips that work wonders with VLOOKUP writing.

  1. Use named ranges

    No one likes a VLOOKUP with lots of dollars and cell references. They are unreadable and difficult to debug. So, a better option is to use named ranges in lookup formulas. For eg: =VLOOKUP(valSalesPerson,tblData,3,FALSE) is much more easier to read and understand than =VLOOKUP(G5,$B$5:$G$17,3,FALSE)

  2. Make table / list references Absolute

    When you need to write lookup formulas in a range of cells, the usual practice is to write first formula and then drag-fill. If you followed above advice and used named ranges, you should be ok with this approach. But if you do use cell references, make sure the table references are absolute, like this: $B$5:$G$17 instead of B5:G17. Here is a nice tutorial explaining the concept of cell references.

  3. Use Tables or Lists [Excel 2003 or above only]

    Using named ranges or absolute references is good technique. But they suffer from one nagging limitation. If your source data (where you are looking up) grows or shrinks, you need to adjust the references. A better option? Use tables (or lists in 2003). Learn more about Excel Tables & how to use them.

  4. Check for Errors

    VLOOKUP is a powerful formula, alright. But ask it to look up a value that is not the data and it acts up. So you need to handle this. The easiest method is to use IFERROR() formula. Like this: =IFERROR(VLOOKUP(…),”Oops, nothing found!”).

    But, IFERROR is a new formula in Excel 2007, so if you are using 2003 or before versions you need to use ISERROR (), like this: =IF(ISERROR(VLOOKUP(…)),”Oops, nothing found!”,VLOOKUP(…))

    But, there is another problem. The ISERROR() is not only lengthy, it is also ugly and inefficient as it calculates VLOOKUP twice.  So a better approach is to use COUNTIF(), like this: =IF(COUNTIF(column, value you want to lookup)>0,VLOOKUP(…),”Oops, nothing found!”) [more: how to handle formula errors]

  5. Use 1 and 0 for last argument

    While I do not recommend this, I have seen many do this in practice. You can use 1 and 0 for last argument in VLOOKUP to make the formula shorter. The formula =VLOOKUP(value, range, column #, FALSE) is same as =VLOOKUP(value, range, column #, 0). Similarly you can use 1 for TRUE.

    What more, you can even omit the last argument if it is 0, like this: =VLOOKUP(value, range, column #, ) Remember, you must place a comma (,) after the column number if you are planning to use this.

  6. Use VLOOKUP only when you need it

    Do you know that formulas like SUMIF() or SUMPRODUCT() can effectively replace VLOOKUP() formulas? For eg. the formula =SUMIF(lookup-range, lookup value, return column range) gives same value as =VLOOKUP(lookup value, total range, 2, false) ? [assuming there is only one match, return column range has numbers]

    Similarly, if you just want to find whether a value is in a list or not, use COUNTIF() formula.

    That is right. Not only formulas like SUMIF are better, they require no separate error handling. If the value cannot be found, they just return 0.
    [Learn more about SUMIF & COUNTIF formulas]

Your suggestions for writing better VLOOKUP

What tips / ideas you follow for writing better lookup formulas? Please share using comment.s

Special Thanks to,

Vipul, Ayush Jain, Spotpuff, Glen Feechan, Dominik Petri, Lukas for their valuable tips & ideas. Click on their names to learn more on using VLOOKUP.

VLOOKUP Week @ Chandoo.org - Learn tips on lookup formulas in Excel

Your email address is safe with us. Our policies

Written by Chandoo
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Home: Chandoo.org Main Page
? Doubt: Ask an Excel Question

35 Responses to “6 Tips for Writing Better VLOOKUPs”

  1. andrew says:

    Hi, I am loving the VLOOKUP series this week. :)

    Could you please expand a little on why you don’t recommend using 1 or 0 in place of true or false? I am in the habit of doing this.

  2. “You can even omit the last argument if it is 0″

    Excel’s default for the last argument is TRUE. Because of this, it’s dangerous to omit the last arguement. I would use either FALSE or 0. Never omit if you want an exact match.

  3. Daniel Ferry says:

    Nice series, Chandoo!
    .
    Your readers may be interested to know that the quickest formula method to do lookups in Excel is an array-entered INDEX.
    .
    This is one of the many topics covered in the Excel Hero Academy:
    Excel Hero Academy
    .
    Regards,
    Daniel Ferry
    Excel Hero Academy

  4. sam says:

    1. Never use VLOOKUP/HLOOKUP – Always use Match /Index
    2. Sort your data before performing a Loookup
    3. Use 1/-1 option Match as it is at least 10 times faster than the 0 option- But modified to perform an exact match rather than an approximate match as described below
    a) A Column containing a Match Fucntion to Find the Position with the 1/-1 option
    b) A Status column containing a Index to check the status (present/not present)
    c) Multiple array entered Index colums to pick

  5. Gregory says:

    In tip number 5 you state, “you can even omit the last argument if it is 0″ which is not correct. If you omit the last argument, Range_Lookup, is TRUE, as Mike Alexander points out.

  6. Sundeep says:

    Excellent series – Need some help from the expert. how easy it is to add/expand a named range in a lookup formula?

  7. Chandoo says:

    @Mike & Gregory: I am sorry for the confusion. The formula =VLOOKUP(value, range, column #) assumes last argument as TRUE.

    Where as the formula =VLOOKUP(value, range, column #, ) assumes last argument is blank or empty which internally gets treated as 0.

    And that is what I mean by you can even omit last argument. I state that “Remember, you must place a comma (,) after the column number if you are planning to use this.” otherwise, this will not work.

    @Andrew: I suggest not using 0 or 1 as they are more cryptic and lead to confusion when your spreadsheet gets to someone else’s hands.

    @Daniel: Thanks for that.

    @Sam: Good tips. I would just add that using VLOOKUP / HLOOKUP is ok as long as they solve the problem you have and do not take too much time. The performance improvements you get with array entered index or other techniques are minimal when dealing with small and moderately sized data sets.

  8. Hui... says:

    @Sundeep
    Very easy

    Have a read of: http://chandoo.org/wp/2009/10/15/dynamic-chart-data-series/
    Particularly Point 3. Create a new named range and type OFFSET formula

  9. Sundeep says:

    @Hui – Thanks.

    If I have a large workbook with many Vlookups and if I change the range to named range…is there an easy way to change all the formulas? It is more of wishful thinking than a question :)

  10. Chandoo says:

    @Sundeep… You can use Apply names from formulas ribbon to apply names to a selected range. This technique works when the ranges are mapped to static references. Dynamic refs. thru OFFSET are bit more tricky.

    You can use the find / replace to automatically replace all $A$1:$C$1000 with dynamic range lstData. See this: http://chandoo.org/wp/2009/02/17/spreadsheet-formulas-edit/

  11. Hui... says:

    @Sundeep
    On the Formulas Tab, Click on the Drop Down on the Define Name button and select Apply Names
    Select one or all Named Ranges and apply
    Excel will go through your worksheet/s and change the Ranges for Named Ranges.

  12. bill says:

    i cannot believe i missed the new to 2007 formula “IFERROR”. your mention of this will help reduce the number of characters in many formulars i use (with “ISERROR”) by at least 40% along with commensurate reductions in spreadsheet size and calculation speed… not to mention future reduction in typing and debugging time in formulas. thank you. and thank excel.

  13. jayank2000 says:

    Newbie here.
    I am not able to understand the Tip#1. Use of “val”, “tbl”. I tried and it kept on giving error.
    Chandoo’s Tip#1: =VLOOKUP(valSalesPerson,tblData,3,FALSE)
    Does it need column headings? And how do you l lookup the value I am looking.
    Thanks in advance.

  14. JimH says:

    I need some help with creating a formula. I have a list of names on tab 1. (About 20) On tab 2 I have a list of names and there total sales (About 3,500) I created a name range for both the first list of names on tab 1 (Producer) and a name range for the second list on tab 2 (Agent_List) The sales on tab 2 for each producer is in the 7th colume.

    I need the formula to identify name of Producer (Tab1) from the Agent_List and then choose the total sales for that producer.

    This is the formula I put together and I only get #REF!
    VLOOKUP(PRODUCER,AGENT_LIST,7,FALSE)

  15. Hui... says:

    @JimH
    I assume you are adding a column next to the Agent_List on Tab 2 and looking up values from the Agent_List and retrieving values from the Producer list
    .
    So the format for your equation will be:
    =VLOOKUP(A2,Producer,7,FALSE)
    or
    =VLOOKUP(Agent_List,Producer,7,FALSE)
    .
    Note that the named range Producer must be at least 7 columns wide, not just Column A or you will get the #REF! error also

  16. Lala says:

    Hi

    Can anyone please help or this totally impossible in excel? I am trying to do a vlookup with a range of cells that contains “comments” in them and unsuccessful.

    Thank you

  17. Hui... says:

    @Lala
    You cannot search within comments unless you use VBA

  18. Jennie says:

    My tips are:

    Pay attention to data types – no fly if mixing text and numbers. I run into this problem a lot with files downloaded from access that have a tendency to mix data types on me when it hits excel.

    Pay attention to $ – If pulling from the same workbook, $ won’t auto fill on your range and you will potentially miss hits.

    • blah blah says:

      Yeah, the data type mixing has bitten several folks I work with in the rear.

      EG: I work at a company where marketing source codes are 10-alphanumeric. But, some codes are like “12345″ while others are “123abc”. When access or sql dumps to excel, the numerical ones convert to numbers while the text ones stay text.

      So, what I do is create a reference column next to them in which I do a =TRIM([column]). Trim not only removes front/back spaces, it converts a value to text data type. This is useful, b/c sometimes sql db admins will store data with a fixed string length (eg: a column may get stored as char(50), which means it will have 50 chars no matter if it has to add extra spaces at the end to pad it out.) When you dump this to excel, the extra spaces remain at the end. So, the Trim command not only converts numbers to text, it removes padded spaces at the end. Very useful when working with sql dumps.

  19. ankit says:

    I have two sheets, in first sheet i have given a criteria of month (like jan, feb), then on another sheet i have month wise sheet like
    jan feb mar
    a 2 5 8
    b 5 9 8
    c 9 12 89

    now i need in first sheet if i give criteria jan then answer is 2+5+9, or if i give feb then answer is 5+9+12 and like that, how to get that??

  20. Nicole says:

    I am pretty well versed in VLOOKUP but I have a challenge I can’t figure out. When I complete the VLOOKUP in one cell, it works fine. When I drag the formula down (using $ where necessary) the value from the first LOOKUP populates in the new cell. If I double click on the cell and hit ‘enter’ then the correct value is pulled in from the vlookup. Any suggestions why the formula isn’t executing correctly until I hit enter?

    • Hui... says:

      @Nicole
      It sounds like Calculation is set to Manual
      Goto the Data Tab Calculation and set it to Automatic

      • Nicole says:

        Absolutely FANTASTIC!! Thank you so much. Slight variation on my version of Excel. I had to go to Formulas Tab then to Calculation sub-tab, Calculation Options, change setting to Automatic. Thank you thank you thank you. Saved me hours of more frustration!

  21. [...] than maybe sorted, which it usually is anyway).Use COUNTIF or MATCH to speed up calculationAs many others have pointed out, VLOOKUP returns #N/A if the lookup value is not found. Instead of using a [...]

  22. Sh says:

    I have more than 2 columns in a table I’m so confused cuz the results i get is #N/A =(

  23. Jerome says:

    I have a 2-sheet database.  Sheet 2 has a list of Accronyms in column A and their description in column B.  On sheet 1, column A is where you input your Acronym. In column B, the formula takes Acronym from column A, looks it up on sheet 2, and displays it on column B. 

    After some research, I found how to make custom text if there is not a match on the Acromyn.  The question i have is, is that when there is no text in comumn A, sheet 1, column B, sheet 1 displays my custom text “ABBREVIATION NOT FOUND”.  I’m trying to write a forumla that leaves column B blank unitl there is an input in column A.

    This is my current forulma:
    =IF(ISNA(VLOOKUP(A4,Description!A:B,2,FALSE)),”ABBREVIATION NOT FOUND”,(VLOOKUP(A4,Description!A:B,2,FALSE)))

    Any help out there?

    Thanks,

    Jerome

    • Chandoo says:

      Hi Jerome… Thanks for your question. Try this formula instead:

      =IF(A4<>“”, IFERROR(VLOOKUP(A4,Description!A:B,2,FALSE),”ABBREVIATION NOT FOUND”), “”)

      Works in XL 2007 or above. For older versions use this:

      =IF(A4<>“”, IF(ISNA(VLOOKUP(A4,Description!A:B,2,FALSE)),”ABBREVIATION NOT FOUND”,(VLOOKUP(A4,Description!A:B,2,FALSE))), “”)

      Btw, to learn more about IFERROR see this: http://chandoo.org/wp/2011/03/11/iferror-formula/

  24. Salvador says:

    I have 2 worksheet, the first one is like this:
    A     B     C     D
    1   DOG   1     BROWN
    1   DOG   2     WHITE
    2   CAT    1    SMALL
    2   CAT    2     MEDIUM
    2    CAT   3     BIG
    THE SECOND WORKSHEET IS LIKE THIS:
    A                  B                                         C                    D
    ENTER#      fORMULA 1 WITH VLOOK          ENTER #     FORMULA 2
                     (RETURN ANIMAL)                                    RETURN TYPE
     
    FOR EXAMPLE i NEED WORKS LIKE THIS:
    2                 CAT                               2                         MEDIUM
     
    FIRST FORMULA IS EASY NOT PROBLEM. bUT FOR THE SECOND i DO NOT FIND HOW TO DO IT. PLEASE HELP.

    • Jo says:

      This would be how I would handle your second formula, in your first worksheet, I would insert a column between C & D. In that column I would have a formula to concatenate the values in column A & C (example =concatenate(a2,c2)) which would result in:

      A B C D E
      1 DOG 1 11 BROWN
      1 DOG 2 12 WHITE
      2 CAT 1 21 SMALL
      2 CAT 2 22 MEDIUM
      2 CAT 3 23 BIG

      Then in the second worksheet formula 2 would be:

      =vlookup(concatenate($a2,$c2),AnimalType columns D&E,2,false)

  25. Gazza says:

    Great Stuff Chandoo
    In your 6th post you say use SUMIF instead of VLOOKUP as it runs faster.
    What if you have a spread sheet with repeated data and you only want to pull one value back?
    would it be best to use a simple VLOOKUP
    or something like: IF(COUNTIF < 2, SUMIF, VLOOKUP)
    I have set COUNTIF < 2 (not just = 1) to take advantage of the fact that if COUNTIF = 0 you won’t get an error

  26. Jo says:

    Now if only you could use the column header name instead of the column index number in the VLOOKUP function.

    Scenario: I have a list/table in one spreadsheet that I use to lookup values in other spreadsheets. If I insert columns in my list/table, I have to go into the other spreadsheet(s) and increment the VLOOKUP formulas’ column index number to capture the right column of values.

    Example: if I inserted a column in Table1, my formula:
    =VLOOKUP(A1,Table1,2,FALSE) would have to change to:
    =VLOOKUP(A1,Table1,3,FALSE),
    it would be so much better if you could code something like:
    =VLOOKUP(A1,Table1,Table1[price],FALSE)

    If my lookup result is numeric data I could use sumif as suggested and use the list/table references; is there a similar function I can use for alphanumeric data lookups that uses list/table references?

  27. andy says:

    tip:

    you can use dynamic column reference for your look up if you want to pull multiple column values from another sheet with the same row reference without having to rewrite the the formula, e.g.

    range a1:d1 = “header”, 2 , 3, 4
    b2 = vlookup($a2, LookUpRange, b$2, 0)
    c2 = vlookup($a2, LookUpRange, c$2, 0)
    b3 = vlookup($a3, LookUpRange, b$2, 0)

    the above will bring back the value two columns away from LookUpRange in b2, 3 for c2 and 4 for d2 for the same reference, a2. By freezing just the column for your lookup reference value and just the rows for your column reference, you can drag your forums both down and right while keeping all reference both constant and dynamic… as oxymoronic as that sounds.

Leave a Reply