Data & Intelligence

Clarifying Excel’s lookup functions

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I’ve decided to write some of my own documentation for common use cases of the Excel functions LOOKUP, VLOOKUP, HLOOKUP and XLOOKUP because the official documentation is pretty confusing. It uses “lookup value” as a synonym for “key”, when one would conventionally expect a “lookup value” to be a synonym for “value”! (After all, in the typical key-value terminology, “values” are obtained as the result of looking up “keys”!)

Before jumping in- here’s a quick overview. All four lookup functions essentially return the result of the pseudocode values[keys.indexOf(key)], where, given arrays of “keys” and “values” named keys and values, respectively, keys.IndexOf(key) is the index of the key in the array keys. Additionally,

  • LOOKUP is the most simplistic of the four functions- it pretty much looks up “values” from “keys” like you would expect.

  • The “V” and “H” in VLOOKUP and HLOOKUP stand for “vertical” and “horizontal”, respectively; in VLOOKUP, the provided 1D ranges must be columns, and in HLOOKUP they must be rows.

  • XLOOKUP combines the functionality of VLOOKUP and XLOOKUP, and allows for the provided 1D ranges to be either rows or columns. (If you have access to XLOOKUP, you should prefer it over VLOOKUP and HLOOKUP. But at the time of writing, you need access to a Microsoft 365 subscription to use XLOOKUP).

Without further ado, here is my documentation.

LOOKUP

Syntax: LOOKUP(key, keys, values).

Returns the result of the pseudocode values[keys.indexOf(key)], where keys.indexOf(key) is the index of the key in keys, when keys is treated as an array.

key – a value that exists in keys

keys – a 1D range of “keys”

values – a 1D range of “values”

Notes:

  • The official documentation mentions an “array form” of a LOOKUP invocation. I don’t cover that here (the above summarizes the “vector form”) because VLOOKUP, HLOOKUP, and XLOOKUP accomplish the same thing as the “array form”.

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VLOOKUP

Syntax: VLOOKUP(key, table, valuesIndex, fuzzyMatch).

Returns the result of the pseudocode values[keys.indexOf(key)], where keys is the column of “keys”, “values” is the column of “values”, and where keys.indexOf(key) is the index of the key in keys, when keys is treated as an array.

key – a value that exists in keys

table – a 2D range that contains the column of “keys” and the column of “values” OR a table that contains the column of “keys” and the column of “values”

valuesIndex – the column index (into table) of the column of “values”

fuzzyMatch – whether or not to fuzzily match key with values in the column of “keys” (you almost always want to use fuzzyMatch = FALSE)

Notes:

  • To create a table that you would use for the table argument, select the 2D range that is to be registered as a table. Then, go to the Insert tab, click Table, and then click OK.

  • You might ask: “Why would we want to specify a table that the “key” and “value” columns reside in? Why not just specify the ‘key’ and ‘value’ columns?” The reason it’s advantageous to have this table parameter is that it, if we are calling HLOOKUP multiple times in the same column and varying valuesIndex between calls, we will get an error message if valuesIndex ventures outside the bounds of table. This error message can prevent us from making erroneous computations.

HLOOKUP

HLOOKUP works in the same way as VLOOKUP, with the only difference being that the “keys” and “values” must be stored in rows instead of columns.

XLOOKUP

Syntax: XLOOKUP(key, keys, values).

Returns the result of the pseudocode values[keys.indexOf(key)], where keys.indexOf(key) is the index of the key in keys, when keys is treated as an array.

key – a value that exists in keys

keys – a 1D range of “keys”

values – a 1D range of “values”

Notes:

  • A 1D range can be either a row or a column.

About the Author

Ross Grogan-Kaylor is an Associate Technical Consultant at Perficient’s Minneapolis office. He enjoys engaging with structural patterns in the syntax and in the high-level ideas of software development.

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