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How to use Google Sheets: Everything you need to know
Spreadsheets are a potent tool for many professions — if you know how to use them. In years past, you’d have to spend hundreds of dollars on software to do anything worthwhile. Now, with the help of Google Sheets and our in-depth guide, you can be up and running in just a few minutes for free. Whether you’re a complete novice or have some experience with Excel or other spreadsheet programs, our beginner’s guide on using Google Sheets will cover everything you need to know to get started.
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What is Google Sheets?
Google Sheets is a cloud-based spreadsheet program part of Google’s office suite, called Google Workplace (formerly G Suite). Alongside Google’s other cloud-based services like Google Drive, Google Docs, Slides, and of course, Gmail, Workplace offers a comprehensive productivity platform for businesses and students alike.
Odds are you’ve at least seen a spreadsheet program before, and Google Sheets doesn’t stray far from the tried-and-true design. You enter or import data to analyze it, do complex calculations, or keep it stored safely for later reference.
What sets Google Sheets apart from competitors is its free use. All you need is a Google account, which takes a few minutes or less to make.
How does it compare to Microsoft Excel?
The best comparison for Google Sheets is Microsoft Excel — the leading spreadsheet program for over three decades. Those with Excel experience will have a much easier time learning how to use Google Sheets, as it works almost the same. The majority of established Excel functions have exact equivalents in Google Sheets. In fact, there is virtually no difference between the two for the primary data management tasks we cover in this guide.
Excel does offer slightly more powerful charting tools and supports enormous datasets. But if you’re not surpassing two million data cells, then Google Sheets has you covered.
Here are some of the advantages Google Sheets has over Excel:
- It’s free. The standalone Excel software costs $140 to purchase, although a free limited online-only version is available.
- It’s cloud-based. Your work is saved automatically, so it’s nearly impossible to lose data.
- It’s built for collaboration. Like the rest of Google Workspace, Google Sheets makes it easy to collaborate with others on any device.
Before we learn how to use Google Sheets, you should know a few key terms. They’re the same terms you’ll find in any other spreadsheet program, so you may already be familiar with them.
- Cell: A single data point in the spreadsheet, represented by a box.
- Column: A vertical set of cells.
- Row: A horizontal set of cells.
- Range: A specific selection of cells.
- Function: A built-in operation that can manipulate data, calculate values, etc.
- Formula: Any combination of functions, cells, ranges, and operators used to calculate a value.
- Sheet/worksheet: A single “page” of rows and columns.
- Spreadsheet: A document containing one or more sheets of data.
How to create a new Google Sheets spreadsheet
The first step in learning to use Google Sheets is creating a spreadsheet. There are a few ways to do this, but the most convenient is directly through the Google Sheets website. Once there, you may have to log into your Google account if you’re not already logged in.
Then, click one of the templates at the top of the page in the Start a new spreadsheet section.
You’ll often want to select Blank, but there’s also a variety of templates that can save you some time depending on your project. You can see the complete list of templates by clicking Template Gallery in the upper right.
Regardless of which one you choose, the new spreadsheet will automatically open. Before entering or importing data, you should give the spreadsheet a name in the text field at the top left of the screen.
Note that each spreadsheet can contain multiple pages or sheets. At the bottom of the page, you’ll see a tab for each sheet in your spreadsheet. You can also add new sheets via the plus button.
How to use Google Sheets: an introduction
Now that you’ve created a spreadsheet, it’s time to learn how to use Google Sheets. Before we enter and manipulate data with formula, take a moment to get familiar with the interface.
When you open a blank document, you’ll see something like the image below. Here’s a brief description of what each element does to help you get more comfortable with the tools are your disposal.
- Spreadsheet name
- Menu bar
- Basic controls (undo, redo, print, format painter)
- Number formatting options
- Text formatting options
- Cell formatting options
- Advanced controls and functions
- Active cell
Most of the interface is self-explanatory, but we’ll get more into the individual controls later in the guide. For now, it’s critical to understand how cell numbering works. This is the backbone of everything that a spreadsheet can do.
Each column is labeled across the top with a letter. Likewise, each row is labeled on the left with a number. A single cell is named by a combination of the two. For example, the active cell in the picture below is B3. Likewise, a range including the first three cells on the left would be B1-B3.
While the active cell above is blue, the colors may differ when multiple people edit the same document. You will see every editor’s active cell, which can help prevent mistakes caused by two people editing the same cell simultaneously.
It’s also worth mentioning that you can resize any row or column by clicking and dragging the border between it and an adjacent row. You can add or delete entire rows or columns by right-clicking and selecting the appropriate option from the drop-down menu. Learn how to freeze a column or row to keep it in place for reference while you scroll.
Learn more: How to add, hide and remove columns or rows in Google Sheets
How to add data to Google Sheets
The first real step to creating a functional spreadsheet is to add data. The easiest way is to click on a cell and type in the data directly. You can press the Enter key to move down to the next row or the Tab key to move right to the next column.
However, this is far from convenient for large data sets. It can take hours to manually enter data (and will take hours to clean up for specific data sets), but you can save that time by importing entire tables at once. There are several ways to do this. The first is selecting a table, copying it, and pasting it directly into your document. With ease, you can use this method to copy lists and other data from websites or other sources.
The other method is to import an existing spreadsheet or supported file type. To import a file into Google Sheets, click File–> Import. Next, you need to find or upload your document and click Select. Virtually all popular spreadsheet file types are supported, and you can find the complete list below.
Supported file types in Google Sheets
- .xls (newer than Microsoft Office 95)
Now you can select the import options for your file. Not all options seen below may be available, depending on the file type. Once you’ve decided, click Import data, and you’re good to go.
Learn more: How to create a drop-down list in Google Sheets
How to format data in Google Sheets
Now that you’ve got data in your spreadsheet, you might need to adjust the formatting before you start working with it. Often Google Sheets will automatically format your data correctly, but sometimes it needs to be fixed manually. Much of this can be done directly from the toolbar, but there are advanced options in the Format tab.
You can select between a simple decimal, percent, dates, currencies, and many other numerical formats. Using the main toolbar, you can also increase or decrease the number of decimal places displayed. Note that this doesn’t change or round the real value, just the number shown.
For normal text, you have the standard options for bold, italic, underline, and strikethrough, as well as font types, sizes, and alignment. You can also format cells by changing the background color or adding borders.
To speed up your formatting, you can select an entire column or row by clicking on the letter or number at the top or left of the screen.
Learn more: How to search in Google Sheets
How to merge cells in Google Sheets
Merging cells is one of the most basic ways to format your spreadsheets, and it should be one of the first things you learn how to do. Thankfully, it’s also one of the easiest things you can do in the program.
The quickest way to merge cells is to select more than one cell and select Format–> Merge cells from the toolbar.
Learn more: How to merge cells in Google Sheets
How to use Google Sheets offline
One of the scariest things about switching to a cloud-based application is the thought of losing your internet connection and all your hard work with it. Thankfully, Google Sheets makes it easy to access and edit your spreadsheets, even if you’re temporarily offline. The only catch is that this only works in the Chrome browser, and you will need to sync your Google account to Chrome.
First, install and turn on Google Docs Offline Chrome extension. Once you’re signed in, head over to your drive.google.com/drive/settings.
Lastly, check the box next to the Online section under General Settings.
How to use Google Sheets formulas and functions
Formulas and functions are a hugely powerful part of any spreadsheet software, and Google Sheets supports both. But before we get into some advanced tasks, let’s talk about the difference between a formula and a function.
A formula performs simple arithmetic on values or cells that you specify. A function performs more complex tasks ranging from simple sums to payments on annuity investments or even pulling data from the web. The main thing to know as a beginner is that all formulas and functions start with =. This signals to Google Sheets that what you’re entering is not just text or a number.
Functions work similarly but require more specific input. We won’t explain every function in this Google Sheets tutorial (there are hundreds of them). But you can see the complete list by clicking on the ∑ symbol in the upper right, selecting the function, then clicking Learn more at the bottom. You can also search for them by typing the function name after the = symbol in any cell.
Learn more: How to sum and subtract in Google Sheets
How to use Google sheets: Advanced tutorial and tips
One of the best and worst things about spreadsheets is just how much you can do with them. There are far too many possibilities to cover in this basic guide to using Google Sheets, but we wanted to include a few more things that even beginners can do to sharpen their skills.
How to make charts in Google Sheets
Although we include it as an advanced tip, it’s actually very easy to create charts in Google Sheets. There’s also a wide variety of chart types to choose from, similar to Google Docs, each of which is entirely customizable.
Once you have your data, select the cells you want to include in the graph, including headers if possible. Then, you can click Insert–> Chart at the top of the page.
Google Sheets will analyze the data and select the best graph type for you. You can change to any other kind of graph in the Chart Editor panel on the right-hand side of the screen. Here you can also add series to display, adjust labels, and do countless other tweaks to the chart itself.
If you want to get into the weeds, you can change the chart’s appearance in the Customize tab of the Chart Editor. It allows you to rename axes, change the chart’s appearance and colors, and make countless other adjustments. The best way to learn about the different options is to play around with them.
Learn more: How to make a graph in Google Sheets
How to sort data in Google Sheets
Sorting data is a great way to analyze information set at a glance, especially when it contains hundreds or thousands of data points.
To sort data in Google Sheets, you need to select the entire table, click Data at the top of the page, then Sort range. Now you can choose the column to sort by, but make sure to check the box for Data has header row if applicable. Otherwise, it will be sorted with the rest of the data!
Learn more: How to sort in Google Sheets
Using this method, you can quickly sort any data, whether alphabetical, numerical, dates, times, or just about anything else.
How to share and collaborate in Google Sheets
One of the most significant advantages Google Sheets has over Excel and other competitors (apart from being free) is how easy it is to collaborate with others on the same document.
Forget about renaming documents and having complex version control systems — all of that is handled by Google Sheets behind the scenes. Plus, anyone can access the spreadsheet from virtually any device, even if someone else is already editing it.
How to share a Google Sheets spreadsheet
The first step to collaboration in Google Sheets is giving access to other users. All new spreadsheets are default private, and only your account can access them.
To share a Google Sheets spreadsheet, you must click the big Share button in the top right. From there, you have two options — manually enter email addresses to share with or get a shareable link.
Shareable links are more convenient if you’re sharing with large groups of people, but they can also open up the document to anyone with the link. Selecting Restricted will limit the document to just the email addresses you’ve shared with, although those people will also have received a link via email.
No matter which option you choose set the correct permissions on the right-hand side. Here are the permissions and what they mean:
- Viewer: Can only see the document in read-only format.
- Editor: Can change and edit all aspects of the spreadsheet.
- Commenter: Can only see and add comments to the document.
Learn more: How to share a file or folder on Google Drive
Note that you can also change or remove permissions in the same menu once the document has been shared.
How to add comments in Google Sheets
One great way to provide feedback in Google Sheets is with comments. These work like you’d expect and offer a simple and easily findable way to fix potential issues, such as removing duplicate data.
Both Editors and Commenters can comment on Google Sheets spreadsheets, but Viewers cannot. Set (or change) permissions to allow comments from the right users.
All you need to do is right-click on a cell and select Comment to leave a comment. Alternatively, you can use the keyboard shortcut Ctrl+Alt+M. After that, type in your message and click Comment. A small orange triangle will appear at the top right of the cell with a comment, and other users can reply to or resolve the comment by clicking on that cell.
Alternatively, if you don’t want anyone editing your data, you can lock cells to keep them in place.
Read more: Best Excel and spreadsheet apps for Android
Yes, Google Sheets is entirely free. There is a paid version for businesses and enterprises, but it only adds more storage space and access to support staff. Functionality remains the same.
Yes, Google Sheets is generally safe and secure. Unless you’ve shared the document with other users, it remains locked behind your password on Google’s servers in a secure location.
For the most part, Google Sheets formulas are the same as Excel formulas. Some complex formulas are unique to either Sheets or Excel, so check the documentation for details.
Yes, Google Sheets are compatible with Excel. You can import and export all standard Excel file types newer than Office 95.
Yes. Click File–>Download and select your file type to download a file.