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How To Highlight Duplicates in Google Sheets

Posted by Jamie on September 7, 2018

Microsoft Excel has occupied the high ground of the spreadsheet wars for many years. Business and home users alike relied on Excel to organize and analyze their data. Whether for check lists, budgets and financial records, graphs, or any other type of dataset, Excel makes it easy to organize your information. There were alternatives at lower prices, and even in some cases for free—but if you wanted the most powerful spreadsheet program imaginable, you’d want to use Microsoft Excel.

In 2006, however, another alternative began to take form. That’s the year that Google began to work on their own web-based office suite for text, spreadsheets, and presentations. The development process continued for years, until, finally, Google Sheets was able to match some of the power of Excel without costing its users hundreds of dollars to purchase – in fact, it’s completely free. While it isn’t a perfect product, anyone looking for a solid, consumer-level spreadsheet tool really doesn’t have to look farther than Google Sheets. Sheets cannot do everything that Excel can do, but if Sheets does everything you need it to do, then you don’t need to buy Excel.

If you’re constantly using Sheets to add and calculate data, you’ve probably run into a problem where you accidentally add duplicate entries to your spreadsheet. After all, the more data you add, the more likely you are to accidentally insert duplicated data into a spreadsheet. That’s bad enough, but the worst part comes later on when you’re trying to look over your work. Since spreadsheets can be heavy documents, it becomes difficult to spot and remove duplicates as time goes by, leading to calculation errors in your work without an obvious source for the bad information.

Fortunately, we’ve found a pretty solid way to highlight duplicates inside of Google Sheets. It’s important that our method not automatically remove duplicate information, as not all duplicates are errors. Data points can be identical, so removing duplicates automatically can cause problems with your information. Instead, it’s a good idea to highlight your duplicate information to manually identify whether or not a duplicate was purposeful. Manually checking your information, though time consuming, is the only way to guarantee your data is properly inputted into the program. Thankfully, by using some of the tools inside of Google Sheets, we can speed up the process of checking for data anomalies and duplicates to make sure our spreadsheets are on point. Let’s take a look at how it’s done.

Highlight duplicates in Google Sheets

Since we want Google Sheets to automatically highlight our information for us, we’ll be using a formula to tell Sheets to bring forward and highlight specific unique information. There are actually two ways to force Sheets to highlight copied information: the first highlights all duplicated information for manual confirmation, while the second will copy unique cells to a selected column, allowing you to check for differences and delete where necessary.

Highlight duplicates using color

As far as being able to identify errors in your spreadsheets, using color highlights to notice any information that has been inputted incorrectly is the way to go. By highlighting information, it’s easy to identify the mistakes very quickly, since you can simply run down the list of content that you need to identify. We’ll be using a red highlight in this step to identify our duplicate content, since red catches the eye and is the universal color for error messages.

Start by opening up the Sheets file you want to check. You’ll want to make sure your information is well organized by both column and row, in order to easily check the content in your document. Now, highlight the column you want to sort at the top of the document and select Format in the top menu of your document. Select “Conditional Formatting” from the list of options in this menu, and an alternate menu will appear on the right side of the display. In this menu, select the range by using the corresponding letter and number combinations (for example, A1 to A76).

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Once you’ve selected your content, change “Format cells if” to “Custom formula is” in the dropdown menu and type or paste the following without quotes: “=countif(A:A,A1)>1” into the box beneath your menu. This will complete the formula for your content. Once this is set, change the formatting style to highlight your content with a red cell background, and click the done icon on your menu. Your spreadsheet will now highlight your duplicate cells in red, and you can scan the selection for any duplicates. Make sure that any existing duplicates are correct, then delete the ones that aren’t. Close the formatting menu and you can restore the normal color to your cells.

Copy only unique cells

Alternatively, if you’d rather automatically sort your raw data, copying only unique cells instead of your duplicate cells can be really useful for fast sorting and filtering. If you’re sure that your information is correct and you’d rather just outright remove the duplicate information you don’t need, you should try this method instead.

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As with the last step, start by opening the document you wish to sort inside of Google Sheets. Highlight the column you wish to edit. Once you’ve highlighted the cell, click on an empty cell in the top of an empty column in order to make sure that your information is moved to the side of the chart. This column will be used to display the results of your sort and formula below. Now, at the top of the document in the formula input box, type or paste the following without quotes: “=UNIQUE()”. This formula will tell Sheets to copy and display only unique cell inputs, and to ignore any information that copies or duplicates other cells. Within the parenthesis of the formula above, make sure to type the cell coordinates using the standard spreadsheet method (for example, typing (A1:A75) will scan all the information from column A row 1, to column A row 75. Once you’ve entered the new information, hit enter to move your new data to the column you designated earlier. Once this is complete, you can either check manually or import your data into your working spreadsheet.

 

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Using an Add-On

We should note that there are a number of plugins available for use with Google Sheets online through the Chrome Web Store, including a tool for removing duplicate data entries automatically from the document. “Remove Duplicates” is an aptly-named tool offered by developer ablebits that allows you to quickly find duplicates throughout an entire sheet of information or by search up to two columns at once. You can move, delete, and highlight results, just as you can with the formula tasks above, although this process is far more automated than we’ve seen previously. The tool includes two wizard setups that allow you to both find and delete duplicates or unique qualities from your document, making it easy to track the information as you go.

Overall, using a wizard tool to find your information might be worth it in the long-run for users who are constantly looking for duplicates in their spreadsheets, but users who only need to check once or twice every few months may be better off just using the formula tools above to manually identify their information. That said, Remove Duplicates has a solid rating on the Chrome Web Store, with strong reviews and an active development team that responds to critiques and complaints. Overall, it’s a great choice if you’re looking to find a more streamlined way to sort your content and find duplicates within a spreadsheet.

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Spreadsheets are often quite a bit more complicated than similar documents made in Google Docs or in Microsoft Word. Because they’re built to deal with organized data, it’s important to make sure that your content is accurate at all times. Keeping a duplicate cell in your files can really cause some serious problems with your data if you aren’t careful, especially when trying to sort financial information into a useful spreadsheet. Luckily, identifying, removing and deleting identical cells of data is surprisingly easy in Google Sheets, something that’s a positive if you’re constantly dealing with spreadsheets in your day to day workflow. And if you’re looking for something that makes it a little easier to sort your content, you can always use an add-on like Remove Duplicates to make sure your information is well-sorted and well organized. In 2018, there’s no reason to keep a messy, error-filled spreadsheet, so make sure that your data is correct and your information verified by using the methods outlined above.

10 thoughts on “How To Highlight Duplicates in Google Sheets”

Matthew Hiller says:
This works, with one exception. It is highlighting the cell under the duplicate, not the duplicate cell. What am I doing wrong?
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Jimmie says:
This formula did absolutely nothing. I have duplicate names and it didn’t highlight them at all.
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Robert says:
I just checked the formula and it worked perfectly. Are you sure you selected the right column and put the correct formula in?
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Shannon says:
Did not work on a list of email addresses. Bummer.
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Randy Barrett says:
This did not work. It just highlighted everything in the column. I verified this by filtering by work ticket #. Only one entry was present, but it was highlighted. I need just the work ticket entry that are duplicates to be highlighted. This way when I enter a work ticket # in the column that I’ve already entered it will highlight and let me know that I’ve already entered the information.
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Laura says:
How do you search for same reference number on two seperate google sheets?
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Michael says:
@Josh

I was having the same issue this evening – all but the last duplicate was highlighted. For me it worked for me to simply reduce the range reduction of the formula:

Your example: Apply to range A4:A1003 – Custom formula is =countif(a4:a1003,a4:1003)>1

Use instead: Apply to range A4:A1003 – Custom formula is =countif(a:a,a4)>1

Then even the latest duplicate should be highlighted according to your settings.

Cheers

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Jordan says:
@Josh, actually the correct way to do this is to make the custom formula:
=countif(A$4:A,A4)>1 and set the range to A4:A — adding the $ before the 4 means that the range to check doesn’t get updated as you go. (The formula in custom formula is re-evaluated as if you were doing copy paste.)
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Christoffer Henriksen says:
Is there a formula that is the exact opposite of UNIQUE?

So it would list all duplicates instead of all those that are unique?

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Christoffer Henriksen says:
Can you help me create it or just help me out in doing so?
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Mohsin says:
This system works, but when a single letter or even a comma change it not detect, also if a column is changed the information storing that not detecting. Need to stay in the same column with same text/character. Anyway, thank you, at least I got a chance to check my sheet.
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Cameron says:
This was very helpful, but is there any way that I can make it so that every duplicate item is highlighted a different color (randomly, not assigned)? ie: Every cell that says ‘Google’ in my column is colored red, but every cell that says ‘Sheets’ is colored blue, and so on and so forth.
If not, thank you anyway! This article has been a big help already.
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Josh says:
just have to create a second conditional formatting rule for each criteria, multiple rules can be assigned to the same range
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Colleen says:
Hello, I understand how to have duplicates on for a selected range. What I want- google sheets to highlight new data that I enter in that is a duplicate. Right now, it is only highlighting duplicates for the current set of data, but if a new cell is entered it does not highlight that as a duplicate. I need it to be actively highlighting duplicates as they are added. Thank you I appreciate the help!
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Syed Tabassum Ali says:
Hey Colleen,
You just need to change the range in the formula or you can set a range of whole column in advance if you need to enter more values. Because the formula will only work with the provided range.
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Josh says:
Syed,
I am not sure if I am reading Colleens question properly, but it sounds like the issue I am having.

So I have data validation setup for cells A4:A1003, it gives me a drop down menu with a list of options I can choose from. The equation “=countif(a:a,a1)>1”, was not working properly for me, it was highlighting random cells in the column based on a duplicate, (generally 4 cells below where the duplicate entry was made) I changed the equation to “=countif(a4:a1003,a4:1003)>1” and it seems to work properly, only highlighting the actual duplicates. One problem, it highlights the original or 1st cell that contains the duplicated information, not the new cell or 2nd entry made. So if I am 50 cells down in a column I wouldn’t know there was a duplicate unless I scroll back up in the sheet and see the highlighted cell. I can not seem to find a way to make the 2nd duplicated entry be the cell that gets highlighted instead of the 1st entry.

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