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How to Write a VLOOKUP Formula That Doesn’t Fail

A large number of Excel users love VLOOKUP but most of them often experience an error headache for days.

I’ve been there too, I used to consider this function very problematic, until I was expecting some surprise after finishing the formula and hitting Enter.

Are you always expecting VLOOKUP errors?

You should understand a NO message as a warning rather than an error. However, you should see it as an error when it doesn’t show your data. Otherwise, the REF, VALUE and NAME messages should be treated as errors as they actually are.

This unnecessary stress only occurs when you focus on the front, you don’t pay attention to the back list. Consequently, when NO appears, you don’t believe it. Otherwise, in a desperation to fix a problem, you change variables that aren’t causing the crash. You soon dream of a pilot who flies without radar and changes everything except the cause of the problem.

How to avoid this waste of time?

First, you should stop blaming VLOOKUP errors because you are solely responsible for such errors.

Yes you do, even if the last entry was not produced by you. You are responsible for checking the data source and in the worst case, when you have a poor quality list, to fix the problems.

Don’t worry, here you’ll get a practical checklist to master VLOOKUP.

Lookups should be viewed as a different type of Excel function, in the sense that they retrieve data from a table or list. As a result, adopting a single-first mindset is a poor quality practice, it will prevent you from advancing your analysis.

A correct prior formula with a poor quality table row will produce incorrect results or unwanted errors.

Follow this set of checks for the back and front sides of VLOOKUP to write better formulas, stop getting unwanted errors and devote more time to analysis.

Actions taken at the Backend

Pay particular attention to entries that come from somewhere and from someone, they usually ignore duplicates, misspellings, leading and trailing extra spaces, etc.

  • Find the search bar on the left.
  • Free the list column from duplicates.
  • Free the list column from extraneous characters. For example: “for inches, m for meters, %, $, extra columns, etc. Use CLEAN, TRIM, Text to Column.
  • Place the list in a searchable file (Recommended).
  • Format the index column correctly. Date, %, etc. Be careful when looking at the numbers, the precision that is displayed is not the number that Excel actually stores and uses in the calculations.
  • For close match VLOOKUP turn the scroll bar column red (range_lookup= 1 or remove).
  • Check that the external reference book is referenced. If the entry is located in an external workbook.

Measures taken at the Front

Relax, once you’ve followed the instructions above things will flow, but you need to keep things straight here too.

  • Format the previous cell the same way as the next column. Especially on dates. Be careful about the accuracy shown when you use numbers.
  • Check lookup_value for odd characters. Use CLEAN, TRIM, Text to column.
  • Check that lookup_value refers to a left index column.
  • Use a NA error formula. Use ISERROR, ISNA, IF. Now in Excel 2007 you can use IFERROR (faster). NO for VLOOKUP means the item was not found so you can use a message to indicate this or perform an action.
  • Check that the range_lookup argument is not passed for an exact VLOOKUP match (Derived means TRUE or an approximate match).
  • Check that the table_array argument is correctly referenced.
  • Check that the table_array argument reference is set to absolute. You often copy formulas below so the table_array may change in unexpected ways.
  • Check if the lookup_value is entered correctly in the cell. For example: “Susan Martines” instead of “Susan Martinez”.
  • Check that the text is specified in the lookup_value (when you search for a text). Excel interprets text without quotes as an indented string. You will get a NAME error.
  • Check that index_col_num is not greater than table_array size. For example, specifying a column of 3 when the array has only two columns. You will get a REF error
  • Check that index_col_num is not 0 or negative. You will get a VALUE error.
  • Check that the column number is not coded. Be aware of this when you move, delete, or truncate columns in the search string. If you’re going to do something like this, create a row above the field headers of the next list, then count each column with the formula =COLUMN() -number of left columns. Now you can reference col_index_num to the corresponding cell that contains the column number. If someone adds a new column to the table, VLOOKUP still links to the correct column, and if someone accidentally deletes it, then you’ll know it right away because your VLOOKUP no longer works (REF error).

Disappointment

Unintended VLOOKUP errors are not generated by accident. Take responsibility for preparing your to-do list first, then keep moving forward and you’ll stop thinking that something unknown is fighting your work.

The above guidelines are a good starting point to be systematic when writing VLOOKUP. You will get a boost in your productivity when extracting data from your lists.

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