There are two very similar functions in Excel to look for data inside of cells matching parameters that you dictate: SEARCH and FIND. There are so similar, in fact, that one wonders why have two separate functions that perform virtually the identical results and are identical in the construct of the formula. This article will discuss he one, basic difference.
The SEARCH function is a way to find a character or string within another cell, and it will return the value associated with the starting place. In other words, if you are trying to figure out where a character is within the cell that contains a word, sentence or other type of information, you could use the SEARCH function. The format for this function is:
If, for example, the word “alphabet” was in cell C2, and your model needed the location of the letter “a” in that cell, you would use the formula =SEARCH(“a”,C2,1), and the result would be 1. To continue this simplistic example, if you were seeking the location of “b” in the word, the formula would be =SEARCH(“b”,C2,1), and the result would be 6. You can also use search on strings of characters. If, for example, cell F2 contains 1023-#555-A123, the formula =SEARCH(“A12”,F2,1) would yield the 11 as an answer.
The FIND function is another way to find a character or string within another cell, and it will return the value associated with the starting place, just like the SEARCH function. The format for this function is:
Using the same example as before, the location of the letter “a” in cell C2 would be discovered using =FIND(“a”,C2,1), and the result would be 1. Looking for “b” in cell C2 would be accomplished be =FIND(“b”,C2,1), resulting in the number 6. Finally, continuing on the similarity path, if cell F2 contains 1023-#555-A123 (as before), the formula =FIND(“A12”,F2,1) would yield the 11 as an answer. As you can see, up to this point, both methods would give you the same results.
Note: You probably quickly recognized that there are two a’s in the word located in cell C2. By stating the starting point in each of the formulas as 1, we will pick up the first instance of the letter “a”. If we needed to choose the next instance, we could merely have the “start_num” part of the formula to be 2, thus skipping the first instance of the letter and resulting in an answer of 5.
The main difference between the SEARCH function and the FIND function is that FIND is case sensitive and SEARCH is not. Thus, if you used the formula =SEARCH(“A”,C2,1) (note the capital “A”), the result would still be 1, as in the case before. If you were to use the formula =FIND(“A”,C2,1), you would get #VALUE!. FIND is case sensitive and there is no “A” in the word “alphabet”.
Another difference is that SEARCH allows for the use of wildcards whereas FIND does not. In this context, a question mark will look for an exact phrase or series of characters in a cell, and an asterisk will look for the beginning of the series of characters right before the asterisk. For example, the formula =SEARCH(“a?p”,C2,1) in our alphabet example would yield an answer of 1, as it is looking for an exact grouping of the letter “a” with anything next to it with a “p” immediately after. As this is in the beginning of the word, the value returned is 1. Continuing with the alphabet example, the formula =SEARCH(“h*t”,C2,1) would yield a value of 4. In this instance, the wildcard “*” can represent any number of characters in between the “h” and the “t” as long as there is a string beginning and ending with the two letters you use in the formula. If the formula was =SEARCH(“h*q”,C2,1), you would get #VALUE!.
In short, these two formulas are very similar, and unless you need confirmation of an exact character or string of characters, you would likely err on the side of using SEARCH. Instances where this may not be the case might involve searches involving specific SKUs or names of employees. In my experience, SEARCH has been more helpful in specific financial modeling exercises, but it is helpful to understand the differences in usage and results as you work through your own modeling projects.