Question: What formula tells you if A1 contains the text "apple"?
This is a surprisingly tricky problem in Excel. The "obvious" answer is to use the FIND function to "look" for the text, like this:
Then, if you want a TRUE/FALSE result, add the IF function:
This works great if "apple" is found – FIND returns a number to indicate the position, and IF calls it good and returns TRUE.
But FIND has an annoying quirk – if it doesn't find "apple", it returns the #VALUE error. This means that the formula above doesn't return FALSE when text isn't found, it returns #VALUE:
FIND returns the position of the text (if found), but #VALUE if not found.
Unfortunately, this error appears even if we wrap the FIND function in the IF function.
Grrrr. Nobody likes to see errors in their spreadsheets.
(There may be some good reason for this, but returning zero would be much nicer.)
What about the SEARCH function, which also locates the position of text? Unlike FIND, SEARCH supports wildcards, and is not case-sensitive. Maybe SEARCH returns FALSE or zero if the text isn't found?
Nope. SEARCH also returns #VALUE when the text isn't found.
So, what to do? Well, in a classic, counter-intuitive Excel move, you can trap the #VALUE error with the ISNUMBER function, like this:
Now ISNUMBER returns TRUE when FIND yields a number, and FALSE when FIND throws the error.
Another way with COUNTIF
If all that seems a little crazy, you can also the COUNTIF function to find text:
It might seem strange to use COUNTIF like this, since we're just counting one cell. But COUNTIF does the job well – if "apple" is found, it returns 1, if not, it returns zero.
For many situations (e.g. conditional formatting) a 1 or 0 result will be just fine. But if you want to force a TRUE/FALSE result, just wrap with IF:
Now we get TRUE if "apple" is found, FALSE if not:
Note that COUNTIF supports wildcards – in fact, you must use wildcards to get the "contains" behavior, by adding an asterisk to either side of the text you're looking for. On the downside, COUNTIF isn't case-sensitive, so you'll need to use FIND if case is important.
So what can you do with these kind of formulas? A lot!
Here are a few examples (with full explanations) to inspire you:
- Count cells that contain specific text
- Sum cells that contain specific text
- Test a cell to see if contains one of many things
- Highlight cells that contain specific text
- Build a search box to highlight data (video)
If you need to brush up on how logical formulas work, see this video. It's kind of boring, but it runs through a lot of examples.
If you like formulas (who doesn't?!), we maintain a big list of examples.