Excel Index Match vs VLOOKUP: Battle of Lookup Functions

Written by Kasper Langmann

In the world of Excel, lookup functions are the backbone of data analysis. They allow users to search for specific information in large datasets, making the process of data management significantly easier. The two most popular lookup functions in Excel are Index Match and VLOOKUP. Both of these functions serve a similar purpose but operate in slightly different ways. In this comprehensive guide, we’ll delve into the details of these two functions, compare their features, and help you decide which one is best suited for your needs.

Understanding Lookup Functions

Before we dive into the specifics of Index Match and VLOOKUP, it’s important to understand what lookup functions are and why they are so useful. In Excel, a lookup function is used to find specific information in a dataset. This could be a single value, a row, or a column of data. Lookup functions are particularly useful when working with large datasets, where manually searching for information would be time-consuming and prone to error.

Lookup functions work by matching a specific value (known as the lookup value) with a value in a specified range (known as the lookup range). Once the function finds a match, it returns a corresponding value from another column or row. This process is known as ‘looking up’ a value, hence the name ‘lookup functions’.

Introduction to VLOOKUP

VLOOKUP, which stands for ‘Vertical Lookup’, is one of the most commonly used lookup functions in Excel. It allows users to search for a specific value in the first column of a range and then return a value in the same row from a column specified by the user.

The syntax for VLOOKUP is as follows: VLOOKUP(lookup_value, table_array, col_index_num, [range_lookup]). The ‘lookup_value’ is the value you want to find, ‘table_array’ is the range of cells in which you want to search, ‘col_index_num’ is the column number in the range from which you want to retrieve a value, and ‘range_lookup’ is an optional argument that specifies whether you want an exact match (FALSE) or an approximate match (TRUE).

VLOOKUP is a great tool for simple lookup tasks. However, it has its limitations. For instance, it can only look for values in the first column of the range and return values from columns to the right. It also doesn’t handle errors very well, and it can be slow when working with large datasets.

Introduction to Index Match

Index Match is a combination of two Excel functions: INDEX and MATCH. While it’s not as well-known as VLOOKUP, it’s often considered more powerful and flexible. The INDEX function returns a value from a specific position in a range, while the MATCH function returns the position of a specific value in a range. When combined, these functions can look up a value in any column and return a corresponding value from any row.

The syntax for Index Match is as follows: INDEX(range, MATCH(lookup_value, lookup_range, match_type)). The ‘range’ is the range of cells from which you want to retrieve a value, ‘lookup_value’ is the value you want to find, ‘lookup_range’ is the range of cells in which you want to search, and ‘match_type’ is an optional argument that specifies whether you want an exact match (0), an approximate match with the next largest value (-1), or an approximate match with the next smallest value (1).

Index Match is more flexible than VLOOKUP because it can look up values in any column, not just the first one. It also handles errors better, and it’s generally faster when working with large datasets. However, it’s more complex to use, and it can be intimidating for beginners.

Comparing VLOOKUP and Index Match


When it comes to flexibility, Index Match is the clear winner. While VLOOKUP can only look up values in the first column of a range, Index Match can look up values in any column. This makes Index Match a more versatile tool, especially when working with complex datasets.

Furthermore, Index Match allows you to return a value from any row, not just the same row as the lookup value. This means you can use Index Match to perform horizontal lookups, something that’s not possible with VLOOKUP.

Error Handling

Another area where Index Match outperforms VLOOKUP is error handling. If VLOOKUP can’t find a match, it returns an #N/A error. This can be problematic, especially when working with large datasets. On the other hand, Index Match returns a more descriptive error message, making it easier to troubleshoot problems.

Additionally, Index Match is less prone to errors caused by changes in the dataset. If you insert or delete columns in the lookup range, VLOOKUP may return incorrect results because it relies on column numbers. Index Match, on the other hand, uses cell references, so it’s not affected by changes in the dataset.


In terms of performance, Index Match is generally faster than VLOOKUP, especially when working with large datasets. This is because Index Match only looks at the specific range you specify, while VLOOKUP looks at the entire column. However, the difference in performance is usually negligible unless you’re working with very large datasets.


Both VLOOKUP and Index Match are powerful tools for looking up data in Excel. While VLOOKUP is simpler to use, Index Match offers more flexibility, better error handling, and improved performance. Therefore, if you’re a beginner, you might find VLOOKUP easier to get started with. However, as you become more comfortable with Excel, you might want to learn how to use Index Match to take advantage of its additional features.

Ultimately, the choice between VLOOKUP and Index Match depends on your specific needs and comfort level with Excel. By understanding the strengths and weaknesses of each function, you can make an informed decision and choose the tool that’s best for you.