How to Use VLOOKUP in Google Sheets

Many people have asked for more tutorials using Google’s suite of products. One popular question is “how to use VLOOKUP work in Google Sheets?”. This function is hugely popular among Google and Microsoft spreadsheet enthusiasts. In this example, I’ll show how to get started. (Includes practice spreadsheet).

info icon If you’re a Microsoft Excel user, please check out the Excel VLOOKUP tutorial.

What is a Lookup Function?

If we remove the spreadsheets concept, you probably do a similar function when you go to a restaurant. You scan the menu for some items and prices. And just as you come to an end, there’s a reference to “daily specials.” Now, you have to hunt for where those items are.

The same issue happens with data. Instead of menus, you might have multiple worksheets from different sources, and the data isn’t always organized the way you want. In the picture below, can you guess what a Pcode is?

Google Sheets with names.Pin
What’s a Pcode?

It’s a code that represents the voter’s political party. You wouldn’t guess that unless you saw a related spreadsheet with additional information. Below you can see the value in Pcode is the same as the value in PARTY CODE.

Listing of political party codes and namesPin
Political Party Codes & Names

What would make more sense is to add a column to the first Google worksheet that displays the political party name from the second worksheet. Using named ranges and the vlookup function, we can improve the table.

Additonal Google sheets column for political party.Pin
New column for Political Party

Part 1 – Mapping Our Fields

When building the Google Sheets lookup, it helps to define what you want and where the values are stored. You’ll see that column order impacts the results.

In my case, I want to:

  1. Add a column to my Voters Google worksheet called Political Party
  2. Look at a voter’s Pcode and find its corresponding NAME on the Party Codes worksheet
  3. Copy that NAME to the voter’s Political Party column
  4. Repeat the process for each voter.
Diagram showing how Google Sheet columns will  map.Pin
VLOOKUP Visual Field Mapping

Stating it another way, we’ll grab their “Pcode” and search for a matching value in the “PARTY CODE” column on the other worksheet for each voter. If we find a match, we’ll look in the “NAME” column and copy that value to the voter’s “Political Party.”

Before we begin, there are several important rules to know about the reference column you need to lookup. In our case, this will be the PARTY CODE column on the Party Codes worksheet.

  • The PARTY CODE column must be the left-most or first column.
  • The PARTY CODE column values must be unique.
  • The PARTY CODE column should be sorted.

For example, I shouldn’t have the PARTY CODE column with multiple instances of the letter “A.” And as you’ll see in the sample file, the values in this column are sorted starting with numbers and then letters.

Part 2 – Importing the Tutorial File

To make this tutorial easier, I’ve created a sample spreadsheet. You can right-click it and choose Save link as….

  1. Open a new Google sheet at https://sheets.google.com.
  2. Click the Open file picker icon. It’s the small folder icon on the far-right.
  3. Click Upload.
  4. Upload the sample tutorial file referenced above.
  5. Select the Replace spreadsheet radio button.
  6. Click Import.

Part 3 – Creating a Named Range in Google Sheets

If you’re not familiar with a named range, it’s a way of defining a cell range using meaningful names instead of absolute cell references. This becomes very handy when you reference ranges in formulas.

Instead of having a reference like 'Party Codes'!A2:B45 we can use a named range called PartyTable.

  1. On the example spreadsheet, click the Party Codes tab.
  2. Click cell A1.
  3. Press Ctrl + A or command ⌘ + A to highlight the range.
  4. Right-click and select Define named range…. You may have to scroll a bit to see this option.
Defining Google Sheets named range.Pin
Defining the Named Range
  1. The Named ranges dialog will appear on the right. Change the name to PartyTable and click Done.

Part 4 – Building the Formula

The VLOOKUP function has 4 arguments. The last item, Sort_order, is optional but critical. This TRUE/FALSE value specifies our matching precision. By default, Google will use a TRUE value, which will match a close value. That’s probably not a good idea when it comes to politics.

ArgumentMeaning
Search_CriterionWhich cell do we lookup?
ArrayWhere should we look for the values?
IndexWhich column number holds the value we need?
Sort_orderShould we use “close match”?
  1. On the Voter’s sheet, add your Political Party column in column D.
  2. Click cell D2.
  3. Start typing =vlookup. You may prefer to use the formula bar above the column headings. It has more visible room.
Entering vlookup in Google Sheets formula bar.Pin
Typing the VLOOKUP formula
  1. Type (.
  2. Click cell C2. This is our Search_Criterion.
  3. Type a , to separate our arguments.
  4. Type PartyTable. This Named Range is our Array.
  5. Type another ,.
  6. Type 2. This is our Index. We’re telling Google to search for the values in the 2nd column on our Array.
  7. Type another ,.
  8. Type FALSE. This is our Sort_order. The FALSE means we want an exact match.
  9. Type closing ).
Completed VLOOKUP in worksheet.Pin
Completed Google Sheets VLOOKUP formula

In the example above, Google Sheets shows the lookup value of “Democratic” in the formula bar. This indicates the formula found a lookup value.

  1. Click Enter to commit the function.
  2. Click and drag the sizing handle (blue square) on D2 down the column to copy the formula to the other cells.
Copying VLOOKUP to other column cellsPin
Copying VLOOKUP to other cells

Google Sheets Formula Troubleshooting

Recently, a viewer contacted me saying the VLOOKUP formula didn’t work, and he shared a link to his Google Sheet with me. Sure enough, I couldn’t get the formula to work either. However, I could get it to work when I created a new Google Sheet on my end.

Interestingly he questioned whether his being in Italy made a difference. I said I didn’t think so because it would be a support issue for Google. They would want to be consistent. Long story short, he was right, and I was wrong.

If you click the File menu and go to File Settings, you’ll see a dialog similar to the one below.

Google Sheets setting for Locale.Pin

It seems certain countries don’t like using commas in Google Sheets formulas. Instead, they need a semicolon. So, make sure your location is correct. If it is, try substituting a ; for ,. You may also need to add a space bar after the semicolon too.