XLOOKUP vs VLOOKUP: Data Analysis Functions

Comparing XLOOKUP vs VLOOKUP Excel functions. Discover which Excel function between the two leads the way in versatility and efficiency.

In Excel, the debate between XLOOKUP and VLOOKUP is more than just technical—it's about efficiency and ease in data handling tasks.

Have you ever faced the frustration of rearranging your entire dataset because VLOOKUP requires the lookup value to be in the leftmost column? Or did you feel limited by VLOOKUP's inability to search horizontally or handle multiple criteria without extra columns?

Choosing between XLOOKUP and VLOOKUP isn't just about what each function can do — it's about what you need them to do in your context​​.

In this guide, we examine the two Excel functions XLOOKUP and VLOOKUP in more detail, focusing on their data analysis capabilities. 

Introduction to Excel Lookup Functions

xlookup vs vlookup

Let's start with VLOOKUP: it's been the go-to function for many, allowing users to search for a value in the first column of a table and return a value in the same row from a specified column. Despite its widespread use, VLOOKUP has its constraints, such as its:

  • Inability to look to the left or perform horizontal searches without a workaround
  • Notorious for being a bit rigid when handling dynamic data changes or errors​​

Enter XLOOKUP, Excel's newer function designed to tackle the limitations of its predecessor. XLOOKUP doesn't just search vertically; it also goes horizontally, providing the much-needed flexibility needed to be added in VLOOKUP. 

It also allows you to:

  • Choose the search direction.
  • Offers a straightforward way to handle errors with a custom return value for not-found cases
  • Doesn't restrict the lookup value to the first column. 

This function can effortlessly handle multiple criteria without extra columns and maintains its integrity even when columns are inserted or deleted. Plus, it's not fazed by the size of your lookup values or how your data is sorted​.

Understanding VLOOKUP

VLOOKUP, a longstanding function in Excel, allows you to look up a value in one column and return a corresponding value from another. It's essential to grasp the four key components of VLOOKUP to use it effectively:

  • lookup_value: This is the value you're searching for, which must be in the first column of your table array.
  • table_array: The range of cells that contains the data. The lookup_value should be in the first column of this range.
  • col_index_num: The column number within the table_array to retrieve the value. The count starts at 1.
  • range_lookup: This optional argument lets you specify whether you want an exact match (FALSE) or an approximate match (TRUE). If not specified, it defaults to TRUE​​.

Common uses of VLOOKUP include pulling information from a database or merging data from multiple tables. However, VLOOKUP has limitations:

  • It can only search for values in the leftmost column of the table_array, meaning you can't use it to look up values to the left of the lookup column.
  • It doesn't support returning multiple values; it only returns one piece of data for each lookup.
  • VLOOKUP can only perform vertical lookups; it cannot search horizontally across rows.

VLOOKUP often produces errors, especially the #N/A error, which indicates the function couldn't find the lookup value. Another common error is #REF!, which occurs when the col_index_num exceeds the number of columns in the table_array. 

Attention to these errors and understanding their causes can help you troubleshoot and refine your VLOOKUP formulas​​.

Introducing XLOOKUP

XLOOKUP is Excel's modern function designed to overcome many limitations of the older VLOOKUP and HLOOKUP functions. Here's a concise breakdown of what XLOOKUP brings to the table and how it functions:

  1. Syntax and Usage: The basic syntax of XLOOKUP is =XLOOKUP(lookup_value, lookup_array, return_array, [if_not_found], [match_mode], [search_mode]). You specify what you're looking for (lookup_value), where to find it (lookup_array), and where to get the return value from (return_array). The optional arguments allow greater control over the search behavior and error handling​​.
  2. Flexibility in Lookup Value Position: Unlike VLOOKUP, which restricts the lookup value to the first column of the table array, XLOOKUP allows you to search for the lookup value in any column, enhancing its flexibility.
  3. Ability to Return Multiple Values: XLOOKUP can return an array of values, not just a single value. This means you can retrieve multiple related values from the same row, significantly expanding its utility over VLOOKUP, which can only return a single value from a specified column​​.
  4. Vertical and Horizontal Lookups: XLOOKUP works vertically and horizontally, eliminating the need for separate VLOOKUP and HLOOKUP functions. This capability simplifies the formula and makes it more intuitive to use​​.
  5. Advanced Error Handling: XLOOKUP provides an optional argument to define what should be returned if the lookup value is not found. This is a notable improvement over VLOOKUP's basic error handling. This feature allows for more robust and error-proof formulas​​.
  6. Versatility with Match Modes: XLOOKUP offers various match modes, including exact match, approximate match, and wildcard match, giving you more control over how the search is conducted and how close the matches must be​​.

In practice, XLOOKUP's advanced capabilities can streamline complex data retrieval tasks, reduce the need for nested functions, and improve formula readability and maintenance. Whether you're working on straightforward lookups or complex data analysis tasks, XLOOKUP is a powerful tool in your Excel toolkit.

XLOOKUP vs VLOOKUP: Flexibility in Lookup Value Position

The comparison between XLOOKUP and VLOOKUP regarding flexibility in the lookup value position is quite stark. XLOOKUP provides a significant advantage over VLOOKUP with its ability to look up a value in any column and return a corresponding value from any other column, irrespective of its position. 

Here's a detailed comparison in a tabular format:




Lookup Value Position

It can be in any column within the range

It must be in the first (leftmost) column of the range

Return Value Position

Can return a value from any column, regardless of its position relative to the lookup column

Can only return values from columns to the right of the lookup column

Horizontal Lookups

Can perform horizontal lookups

Cannot perform horizontal lookups


Allows separate definitions for the lookup array and return array

Uses a single table array and a column index to return a value

Approximate and Exact Match

Offers more options for matching, including exact match, next smaller item, next larger item, and wildcard match

Limited to exact match or approximate match based on sorted data

XLOOKUP enhances flexibility and reduces the limitations that users face with VLOOKUP. It eliminates the need to rearrange data so that the lookup value is in the first column, and it allows retrieving data from any position, which is a significant leap in functionality and convenience​​.

XLOOKUP vs VLOOKUP: Handling Multiple Criteria

When comparing XLOOKUP and VLOOKUP regarding their ability to handle multiple criteria, XLOOKUP stands out for its simplicity and efficiency. In traditional VLOOKUP usage, incorporating multiple criteria often requires creating additional helper columns or using more complex formulas like combining VLOOKUP with MATCH or INDEX functions. 

Here's a detailed comparison in a tabular format:




Multiple Criteria Handling

Directly allows for multiple criteria without additional columns or complex formulas.

Typically requires creating helper columns that combine multiple criteria into one column or using complex formulas.


Simplifies the process with straightforward syntax, reducing the need for complex formula combinations.

Often involves complex and cumbersome formula combinations to handle multiple lookup criteria effectively.


Offers enhanced flexibility, allowing users to specify distinct lookup and return arrays, making it easier to handle multiple criteria.

Limited flexibility as it relies on a single table array often necessitates consolidating multiple criteria into a single column for effective lookup.

Error Handling

Provides built-in error handling capabilities, offering more control over the output when criteria are unmet.

Typically requires additional error handling functions like IFERROR or ISNA to manage errors when unmet lookup criteria.


More efficient in handling multiple criteria, especially in large datasets, as it avoids the need for additional calculations in helper columns.

It can become inefficient with large datasets, especially when additional helper columns or complex formulas are required for multiple criteria.

XLOOKUP's design addresses the limitations and complexities of using VLOOKUP for multiple criteria, offering a more streamlined and efficient approach. This makes XLOOKUP a more robust choice for users dealing with sophisticated data lookup scenarios.

XLOOKUP vs VLOOKUP: Horizontal vs Vertical Lookup

XLOOKUP offers a significant improvement over VLOOKUP by enabling horizontal and vertical lookups, thus overcoming a notable limitation of VLOOKUP, which is restricted to vertical lookups only. Here's a detailed comparison:




Lookup Direction

Can perform horizontal (left to right) and vertical (top to bottom) lookups.

Restricted to vertical lookups only (top to bottom).


It can return values from any row or column, providing flexibility in data arrangement.

It can only return values from a column to the right of the lookup column, limiting its flexibility.

Use Case

Ideal for tables where the data arrangement isn't strictly vertical or when horizontal data needs to be retrieved.

Best suited for scenarios where the data is organized vertically, and the value to be retrieved is in a column to the right of the lookup value.

Formula Complexity

Simplifies the process with a single function for both types of lookups, reducing the need for additional formulas.

To perform a horizontal lookup, a separate function (HLOOKUP) is needed, complicating the formula structure.

Error Handling

Includes built-in error handling, allowing for more precise control over outcomes when no match is found.

Requires external error handling functions like IFERROR when dealing with potential lookup errors.

XLOOKUP's ability to perform horizontal lookups means you no longer need to rely on HLOOKUP for searching data across rows. This unified approach streamlines the formula and reduces potential errors and complexity in your Excel tasks. 

For instance, if you need to look up a value across a row and return the corresponding value from a row below or above, XLOOKUP can accomplish this without restructuring the dataset, a task VLOOKUP could not handle due to its vertical-only limitation.

Error Handling: XLOOKUP vs VLOOKUP

XLOOKUP offers enhanced error handling capabilities compared to VLOOKUP, adding flexibility and precision when managing lookup operations that don't find a match. Here's a comparative analysis in a tabular format:




Error Handling Capability

Provides an optional argument ([if_not_found]) to specify a return value when the lookup value is not found.

It lacks a built-in mechanism to handle errors directly within the function; error management typically requires wrapping with IFERROR or ISNA.

Default Behavior for No Match

Returns a custom message or value the user specifies if no match is found.

Returns #N/A error by default when no match is found, requiring external functions to handle this error.

Versatility in Error Handling

Allows for dynamic response to unfound values, enabling the return of alternative results or custom messages.

Less versatile, as it can only return #N/A if combined with other functions for error handling.

Complexity in Formula

Simplifies formula complexity by integrating error handling within the function itself.

Increases formula complexity when combined with error-handling functions to manage #N/A errors.

Approximate Match Error Handling

Offers options to return the next larger or smaller item if an exact match isn't found, enhancing the function's utility in approximate match scenarios.

It is limited to returning an approximate match based on sorted data, which can be error-prone if it isn't sorted correctly.

XLOOKUP's integrated error handling makes your spreadsheets more robust and user-friendly, significantly reducing the need for additional error-checking formulas that can complicate and clutter your Excel work. 

This advancement not only streamlines the process of managing lookup errors but also provides clearer, more meaningful responses when data isn't found, enhancing the overall effectiveness of your Excel functions.

Performance and Efficiency

Several key points should be considered when comparing the efficiency and speed of XLOOKUP and VLOOKUP in Excel. While XLOOKUP is touted for its flexibility and advanced features, its speed performance is only sometimes superior to VLOOKUP's, especially when dealing with large datasets.

Performance Insights:

  • In some scenarios, especially with complex lookups, XLOOKUP can be slower than VLOOKUP and the traditional INDEX/MATCH method. For instance, a 2D XLOOKUP might perform less efficiently than INDEX/MATCH/MATCH, with the latter being about 30% faster in certain tests. However, utilizing a binary 2D XLOOKUP improves its performance, making it faster than its normal counterpart and even INDEX/MATCH/MATCH in some cases.
  • XLOOKUP's advantage lies in its error handling and the ability to specify a default value if the searched item is not found, a feature not available in VLOOKUP​​.
  • The XLOOKUP function is designed to search only the necessary arrays, making it more efficient than VLOOKUP, which scans entire tables. This attribute contributes to XLOOKUP being generally faster and more efficient, particularly in well-structured datasets​​.
  • VLOOKUP, however, has the edge in compatibility, functioning across all Excel versions, whereas XLOOKUP is limited to newer versions like Microsoft 365 and Excel 2021​​.





All Excel versions

Excel 2021, Excel 365, Web

Exact Match



Approximate Match

Fewer options

More options (e.g., next smaller or larger)

Search Order

Top to bottom

Multiple (e.g., first to last, last to first)

Binary Search



Error Handling


Advanced (specifies output if not found)

Lookup/Return Array Flexibility

Less flexible

More flexible

While both functions have their merits, the choice between XLOOKUP and VLOOKUP largely depends on the specific requirements of your task, the Excel version you're using, and the complexity of the dataset you're working with.

Final Thoughts

In exploring XLOOKUP and VLOOKUP, we've delved into the nuances that set these two Excel functions apart. While XLOOKUP boasts advanced features like flexible search directions, error handling, and binary search options, making it a robust choice for complex data analysis, VLOOKUP holds its ground with broader compatibility and established reliability, especially in simpler lookup scenarios. 

Now that you've acquired this knowledge consider your specific dataset size, Excel version, and the complexity of your lookup needs when choosing the right function. If you're inclined towards modern, efficient, and versatile data handling, XLOOKUP might be your go-to. 

However, pay attention to VLOOKUP, especially when working across various Excel versions or dealing with straightforward lookup tasks.

Keep Learning

» Master Excel VLOOKUP: A Step-by-Step Guide to Excel's Most Useful Function
» Mastering Excel: Replacing VLOOKUP with INDEX/MATCH
» Excel Data Analysis: Tools for Visualization, Modeling, Regression, and More
» Excel Data Management Functions - Organize and Analyze Data Efficiently