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How to Write a VLOOKUP Formula That Doesn’t Fail
Many Excel users love VLOOKUP, but most of them usually have several days of error headaches.
I’ve been there too, I used to find this feature very problematic until I was in for a surprise after finishing the formula and hitting enter.
Should you expect VLOOKUP errors all the time?
You should treat the NA message as a warning rather than an error. However, you must see it as an error if it does not reflect your data. Additionally, the REF, VALUE, and NAME messages should be treated as errors, as they really are.
This unnecessary frustration occurs when you only focus on the UI and don’t care about the list of backends. Consequently, when NA appears, you don’t trust it. Moreover, if you want to fix any problem, you will be changing variables that are not the cause of the crash. You will soon be in the trance of a pilot flying without radar and changing everything but 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, even if you didn’t create the backend list. You are responsible for verifying the source of the data and, at worst, fixing the problems if you have a poor quality list.
Don’t worry, here’s a handy checklist to dominate VLOOKUP.
Lookups should be thought of as different types of Excel functions in the sense that they pull data from a table or background list. Consequently, simply adopting a front-end mindset is a poor quality practice that prevents you from moving forward with your analysis.
A correct frontend formula with a poor quality table array will produce incorrect results or unwanted errors.
Follow these checklists for backend and frontend aspects of VLOOKUP so you can write better formulas, stop getting unwanted errors, and spend more time on analysis.
Actions taken in the back program
Pay special attention to listings that come from anywhere and anyone, they usually don’t care about duplicates, misspellings, extra spaces at the front and at the end, etc.
- Find the search index column on the left.
- Free the index column from duplicates.
- Free the index column from odd characters. For example: ” for inches, m for meters, %, $, extra commas, etc. Use CLEAR, CELL, Text column.
- Find the list on the search page (recommended).
- Format the index column correctly. Date, %, etc. Be careful when searching for numbers, the precision displayed is not the number that Excel actually stores and uses in calculations.
- Sort the index column in ascending order for a VLOOKUP approximate match (range_lookup= 1 or omitted).
- Check if an external lookup book is referenced. If the list is in an external workbook.
Actions taken at the front end
Relax, once you’ve followed the instructions above, things will start moving, but here too, you need to keep things straight.
- Format the front cell the same way as the back index column. Especially on dates. Be careful with the precision displayed when using numbers.
- Check lookup_value for odd characters. Use CLEAN, TRIM, Text to column.
- Check if lookup_value refers to the left index column.
- Use the NA capture error formula. Use ISERROR, ISNA, IF. You can now use IFERROR in Excel 2007 (faster). For VLOOKUP, NA means the item was not found, so you can use a message to display or perform an action on it.
- Check that the range_lookup argument is not omitted for exact match VLOOKUP (Omitted means TRUE or approximate match).
- Check that the table_array argument is referenced correctly.
- Check if the table_array argument reference is set to absolute. You usually copy formulas down, so table_array can change in unwanted ways.
- Check that the lookup_value is entered correctly in the cell. For example: “Susan Martinez” instead of “Susan Martines”.
- Check if the text in search_value is quoted (if you’re searching for text). Excel interprets text without quotes as a named range. You receive the error message NAME.
- Check that index_column_count is not greater than table_array dimension. For example, specifying column 3 when the array has only two columns. You get the error message REF
- Check that index_column_number is not 0 or negative. You get a VALUE error message.
- Check that the column number is not hard coded. Be aware of this when you move, delete, or cut columns in the lookup array. If you’re going to do this sort of thing, create a row above the headers of the background list fields, then number each column the number of columns to the left with the =COLUMN() formula. Now you can refer to the cell corresponding to col_index_num that contains the column number. If someone adds a new column to the table, VLOOKUP will still link to the correct column, and if someone accidentally deletes it, you’ll know right away because your VLOOKUP won’t work anymore (REF error).
Unwanted VLOOKUP errors are not generated by accident. Take responsibility for first preparing the list of backends, then proceed correctly in the frontend, and you will no longer think that something unknown is fighting your work.
The instructions above are a good start to being systematic when writing VLOOKUP. Get a boost in your productivity when you get data from lists.
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