This article will give you a solid introduction to the VLOOKUP function in Excel, but the first question to ask is “Why do we need to look up things?” You’ll find yourself looking up things a lot in your Excel classes, as well as during your practical applications of Excel in your daily life.
Well, when I was a kid, I loved finding things out. I wanted to be the smartass know-it-all!
I was obsessed with dinosaurs, aviation and most importantly professional wrestling. I would spend countless hours reading books on those topics. I have a very logical brain and I would love listing these things so that they were organised enough for me to later memorise them (did I mention I was a geek?!).
Then like a true dino-geek (that’s what they call us!), I would list them out like this…
That way, I had a table of information I could use to easily find information associated with each dinosaur.
Discovering associated information is at the heart of finding or looking up. This Excel class will teach you the virtues and applications of having this information.
In everyday life we need to find information. It could be searching for a phone number by looking up a name in your contacts list on your address book on your mobile device, or it could be the price of a menu item in a restaurant or online. Excel classes will teach you how to look up all of the relevant information that you need to access.
In summary, both these processes involve looking at a name or reference and then finding its associated value. That could be a telephone number, cost or anything else associated with that record. Our online Excel courses will emphasize the importance of being able to locate this important information, as well as how to go about doing exactly that.
This same principle applies to the business environment. Let’s say you are a management accountant working with human resource data to build the annual budget.
Now, you have a list of employees and their associated information such as salary for different resource types (i.e. analysts, project managers, developers, infrastructure designers, etc.).
You know that you need to plan for 10 analysts, 3 project managers, etc., so you need to start finding important data about these resources such as salary to start shaping a budget.
Perhaps your work involves selling products or services, these would generally have a product ID.
Let’s say a potential customer needs more information about these products, you can find that information with the product name or a reference number and once you know the reference number you have access to anything from product name to its weight to materials.
Often at work, you are in situations where you need to find out some information from a record. Perhaps, as above you need to find the selling prices (for example) of a selected number of products by using the product ID’s and looking through a huge master list numbering thousands of rows of data.
You could look each product ID up manually and check the price, then enter it into your report. This is the lengthy option and often fraught with the risk of human error.
Thankfully Excel is a great tool to make jobs like this easier. If you’ve never heard of the VLOOKUP function, then you are about to be initiated into the foundation of any Excel user’s skill-set. I have found over the years that is the number 1 formula Excel has to offer (joint #1 with if).
It’s definitely one of the most useful functions (my favourite formula along with if!) and you will find that the VLOOKUP function will make many finding information effortless, efficient, and more accurate. Now I will pass this information along to you in this Excel tutorial.
If you’ve never heard of or used either, then I suggest get some Excel training as soon as possible.
What Exactly Is A VLOOKUP Function in Excel?
In summary, the VLOOKUP function in Excel is able to use a given reference and look for it in a specified range and then return a value from the same row in another column. You can instruct the function to find an exact match or the closest match. The former is best used for ID’s when you need to find a person’s employee number or a product ID for example. The latter is useful for finding a graded result if the lookup criteria sits in between a bracketed range, more on this later.
The function broken down looks like the below, in summary we will ask:
Find my reference in a range, when you find it, please tell me the piece of information that is x amount of columns to the right of that data.
Before I look at how to use this valuable function in Excel, let’s first take a look at it in the form as found in Excel.
=VLOOKUP(lookup_value, table_array, col_index_number, [range index number])
Breaking down each element, Excel defines:
lookup_value as the value to be found in the first column of the table. This can be a value, a reference, or a text string. This is your employee or product ID I mentioned above
table_array as a table of text, numbers, or logical values, in which data is retrieved. Table_array can be a reference to a range or a range name.
col_index_number is the column number in a table_array from which the matching value should be returned. The first column values in the table in column 1.
[range index number] is a logical value: to find the closet match in the first column (sorted in ascending order) = true or omitted; find an exact match = false. Additional note: You can also use a zero 0 (for false) or a one 1 (for true).
What Is A Good Excel VLOOKUP Example?
Using the product ID example above let’s look at how we can easily extract the price from a master list by using the product ID as the lookup reference.
In the example above, our lookup_value is shown in cell G3 in blue. We’ve used a cell reference to indicate this, but you could enter “D40” in quotation marks as it’s text.
Our table_array is highlighted in red. Our lookup_value must appear in the first column of the table_array, we can see it does in cell B7.
Next, we’ve told the function to look at column 3 of the table_array. In this case that is column D. Note that this is not column 3 of the sheet i.e. column C, it’s the third column within the range you have selected.
Finally, we’ve used the false or 0 indicator to let the function know we want an exact match; 99% of the time you want exact matches. I will discuss the 1% later, as it is very useful when needed.
All of that combined means the function looks for the text string “D40” in the range highlighted in red above, finds it, then looks into column 3 of that range and returns the value shown on the same row. In this case it £2.25 as shown in the result cell G5. We can manually trace across from product ID “D40” and count across 3 (including the starting cell), to find we stop in cell D7, there we can see our result.
Why Must You Store Your Data Vertically for VLOOKUPS Functions in Excel?
In order for a VLOOKUP to function, it’s important to follow many practices. One of those is, as the title suggests, is to store your data vertically. This is another concept that is taught in any quality Excel class. We can use the same example above to highlight this. One key thing to note is the V in VLOOKUP, stands for vertical, so vertical look up, that is literally what the function does, it looks up the criteria you want vertically.
As you can see below we have the master list. This could be a sheet name. It’s generally good practice to ensure your raw data is formatted in this tidy manner, with one column for each set of data. This will make using function of any type easier and make your workbooks looks clear and professional.
This below, is better than…
… this! The data is split over more columns than is needed, plus some of the data is in the wrong columns and column heading is missing. A tidy, well labelled worksheet is a friend to you and those others that may need to use it. A spreadsheet should be able to tell a story and give a clear indication of what the data is.
VLOOKUP is not suited to data stored in this horizontal format. If we were to try to use VLOOKUP on the below it would expect to find all the lookup criteria for a category in the same column, there are however, none, as these are all stored horizontally.
I hope you have found the article useful and already realised where you can use it in your daily work.
As I mentioned before, the VLOOKUP function is one of the most useful functions, if you don’t know it, you need to and if you are reading this, you should be able to start harnessing some of it’s amazing potential.
Excel Classes: Keeping Your Information Organized and Accessible
Sure, you need to keep your data organized and a spreadsheet is one of the best ways to do this. But you also need to be able to easily access the data that you need for any given situation in your professional life. Our Excel classes will not only introduce to you the VLOOKUP function, but also make you aware of the finer points of its use and practical applications.