Master These Excel Lookup Functions To Save Time

One of the most popular Excel Lookup functions is VLOOKUP. Another Excel function to check out is the HLOOKUP function, which can do a horizontal lookup.

The newly added XLOOKUP is becoming very popular too. (The XLOOKUP function is currently only available in Office 365 versions).

For the advanced & power users of Excel, the mastery of Excel lookup functions like INDEX, MATCH & OFFSET can be considered vital. These functions are considered the “advanced” lookup functions in Excel.

With the help of these functions, you will be able to analyze data quickly. To learn more, you should enrol in the data analysis and interpretation training class

But with the introduction of XLOOKUP, some of the jugglery created by mixing INDEX & MATCH combination is no longer required.

VLOOKUP Function of Excel

The most MUST HAVE Function ever. Even Excel gurus can’t live without it. I polled a group of Excel experts recently, asking if Excel’s VLOOKUP was overrated. I got a severe backlash for even mentioning it.

Almost everyone said that it is their GO TO function, an absolute must-have and that Excel won’t be that useable if this VLOOKUP function was taken away from Excel!

Most people swear by their VLOOKUP functions. It is their GO TO function when they want to lookup value of any type.

According to legend, VLOOKUP mastery is what separates the Pro Excel users from the Amateurs!

Vlookup is akin to using a dictionary. You know the word, and you want to find out the meaning. This dictionary is the range of cells that contain the lookup up value, and its associated value. The V in VLOOKUP stands for the dictionary data array being a vertical dictionary. So for a vertical lookup you must use VLOOKUP function only.

=VLOOKUP(word, dictionary, column number of meaning, exact_match_ype)

In the VLOOKUP formula, the first column in the dictionary must contain the lookup up value, and the first row should be of the data. You should not include the headings in the dictionary table. The difficulty most people have with VLOOKUP is the last flag – the logical value of TRUE or FALSE (You can use 1 for True and 0 to indicate the False flag).

Once a matching value is found out, you will be able to get the return value based on the search. The error value of N/A will be generated if there is no exact match until the last row or the last column of the array.

The mystery is created because to use VLOOKUP for an exact match, you have to specify the last optional flag, and set its value to a FALSE or a 0. By default, it is set to 1, which is useful for an approximate match type only. So for an exact match of a specific value, the last parameter is not really optional… it is mandatory.

Practical Examples of VLOOKUP:

= VLOOKUP(50, age_income, 2) will find the income from the second column of the age_income range for the age value of 50. Note that this is set as an approximate match lookup, as the last optional value is not specified.

=VLOOKUP(A5, $K$10:$L$100, 2, FALSE)

In this VLOOKUP example, we are looking for a piece of information from the column of data in the range $K$10 to $L$100. The search value is in cell A5, and the particular value of interest is in the lookup array that is set as an absolute reference.

The above example uses the reference functions that will generate an Exact match. If the correct value is not found, an error value of N/A will be received.

There are two major shortcomings in using the VLookup function of Excel.

  • First of all, the VLOOKUP is really a slow function. It is obvious when you do a lookup on a large list of 100,000 values or more.
  • Secondly, VLOOKUP can only look up a corresponding value from the columns on the right of the looked-up value. It can’t look to the left!

Make sure you master this Excel function really well.

HLOOKUP Function in Excel

An often forgotten cousin of the VLOOKUP formula, this Horizontal Lookup and Reference function in Excel works in a similar way too. The only difference is that in this case, a lookup dictionary is a horizontal dictionary of columns, denoted by the H.

HLOOKUP is most used in range lookups, rather than exact matches, as columns are not the best suited for exact values, because of their limit of only16,000 columns. Whereas a list can grow vertically to over a million records easily.

In the following formula, this lookup function searches for the closest match, especially when we are not searching for an exact match, but an approximate match.

The dictionary is the table array and it is recommended that we use the absolute reference to lock the cells from moving.

=HLOOKUP(A5, $G$2:$K$100, 2)

Here the HLOOKUP will search for the exact or the next smallest value in the lookup table source data range of $G$2 to $K$100, and return the second row. If you want the third row, you can change the 2 into a 3.

Both VLOOKUP & HLOOKUP return single-cell values from a single row or a single column.

XLOOKUP Function in Excel

Did you know that new functions are added to Excel quite frequently, and these are extremely useful functions making approximate matches as well as exact matches?

Finally, after years of backlash at Microsoft for creating the mess with the Match Type (True and False) in VLOOKUP, they got rid of it completely in the Excel XLOOKUP function.

By default, XLOOKUP is set to do an exact match.

XLOOKUP requires a deeper understanding of the various scenarios it can handle. I’d recommend a dedicated video tutorial on XLOOKUP by Excel MVP Chandoo to learn how to use XLOOKUP in Excel.

This new XLOOKUP function of Excel is only available from Microsoft Office 365 users. It does not work on Excel 2016 or Excel 2019 versions.

Good knowledge of these lookup functions can help you to prepare the data in advance before you begin to analyze or summarize data with Excel.

With so many better functions, I have now stopped using VLOOKUP. There’s a new feature in Power Query in Excel, which really negates the use of vlookup function in Excel.

Using INDEX Function in Excel

If you know the row number, you can find the value on that row or column cell directly. INDEX can be used as an Array function also. Paired with MATCH, you can find any value on any row or column in a 2-dimensional array.

How To Use Excel MATCH Function

When you want to find an exact match in an array and return the row number in the array, MATCH comes to your rescue.

It is one up on VLOOKUP, which requires you to know the column you want to return. MATCH can find a match for a value that is lower, exactly equal or higher than the specified value.

=MATCH(value, range_Lookup_Cells, FALSE)

This simple example MATCH function will look for the value in the range_Lookup_Cells, and return the row of the matched value exactly.

Index and Match can work on a single row or a single column of data too. These 2 lookup functions of Excel are the exact opposite of each other.

The index finds the value on a particular row, and Match finds the row or column number where the match happens to be found in the data range.

Both Index and Match can also run as an array form of the Excel Lookup Function.

Paired with INDEX, an INDEX & MATCH Function can manage to look up on the left or the right of any array of cells.

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Master the OFFSET Function within Excel

To navigate your way in a two-dimensional array of rows and columns, you can use the OFFSET function in Excel. It can traverse any number of Rows or Columns, and get you the value.

How to use the offset function in Excel:

=OFFSET(Starting Cell, Row to move up or down, Columns to move left or right, Number of rows required to be returned, number of columns required to be returned)

I generally use OFFSET more than INDEX and MATCH combinations. Using one super-powerful OFFSET function is more straightforward.


Once you start using Offset in Excel, you wouldn’t want to use other lookup functions of Excel.

When Do I Use the INDIRECT Function of Excel?

The Excel INDIRECT function returns the reference specified by a string text. Any References are immediately evaluated to display their contents.

You can Use the INDIRECT function when you want to change the reference to a cell within a formula, without changing the formula itself.


The above Indirect function will check what is in cell A3. And A3 will have the cell reference to another cell. So if A3 contains B35, Excel will then read the value in cell B35.

Thus, we can get the value of the reference in cell A3. The reference is to cell B3, which may contain the value 45.

The INDIRECT can be very useful in creating custom management dashboards and reports.

What does the FORMULATEXT Function of Excel Do?

Displays the text of another formula. This formula helps to see all formulas next to their values and can be useful to spot mistakes and issues with formulas.

=FORMULATEXT(A3) will provide you with the formula in cell A3 as a Text Value.

This FormulaText function is useful to see the formula without having to go into Editing mode.

View this article for more information on how to get the Formula of another cell in Excel.

Begin Using ROWS Function of Excel

Displays the row number of a reference cell.


The above function will return a value of 4. This is because there are 4 Rows in the given range.

Use the COLS Function in Microsoft Excel?

Displays the column number of a reference cell. As evident in the following syntax, COLS function is useful to count the columns in a range.

This can be useful, when combined with INDIRECT and OFFSET, the function begins to help in generating a dynamic range.


Will return a 2. This is because there are 2 Columns in the given range: A & B.

Use the TRANSPOSE Function in Excel like a Pro

Converts rows into columns and columns into rows. Just like the Transpose feature in Paste Special, but done programmatically.

So if you use TRANSPOSE(A1:D3), you have selected 4 columns and 3 rows.

After the Transpose is completed, you will get an array reference of 3 Columns, and 4 Rows. The horizontal table would have flipped and will be visible vertically.

So the next time you have a list of products that you want to flip from rows to columns, you can use the Transpose function.

Pretty nice use of hanging values in rows into columns.

When Do I Use the UNIQUE Function of Excel?

The UNIQUE function of Excel generates a list of unique values that automatically spill down. An array function can be used to create data validation lists too.

Available from Microsoft Office 365 onwards. This UNIQUE function is not available in Excel 2016 or Excel 2019.


Learning the Lookup Functions in Excel Quickly & Easily

As you can see, there are a lot of LOOKUP functions in Excel, and learning and mastering them takes time. But once you do master them, you can do wonders with your Excel skills.

It is worth the effort to learn the Excel Lookup Functions. Call Intellisoft at +65-6296-2995 for Excel 365 Classroom Training that covers the key Lookup functions of Excel.

You will definitely enjoy it!



Founder of ExcelChamp. Master Trainer at Intellisoft Systems in Singapore.

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Articles Written By Vinai.

Vinai is passionate about maximizing Excel to improve everyday productivity. He conducts online Excel workshops as well as classroom workshops in Singapore, Australia, Middle East. If you would like to engage him to train your staff in maximising Excel, do contact us.

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