Google Spreadsheet Formula Tutorial

A Google Docs Spreadsheet formula allows you to perform calculations on data entered into a spreadsheet. You can use such formulas for basic number crunching, such as addition or subtraction, and for more complex calculations, such as payroll deductions or test averages. One considerable advantage of using a spreadsheet is that its formulas are dynamic: If you change the data in the spreadsheet, the answer will be recalculated automatically wherever it appears without you having to re-enter the formula. This tutorial covers the steps for creating and using formulas and is intended for those with little or no experience in working with spreadsheet programs.

01
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Creating a Basic Formula: Start With the Equal Sign

Google Spreadsheets Formula Tutorial
Google Spreadsheets Formula Tutorial. © Ted French

The steps for creating a basic formula are the same ones to follow when writing more complex formulas. In our sample formula, we'll first add the numbers 5 and 3, and then subtract 4. The final formula will look like this:

= A1 + A2 - A3

Type the following data into the appropriate cells:

A1 : 3
A2 : 2
A3 : 4

When creating a formula in a Google Spreadsheet, you always start by typing the equal​ sign in the cell where you want the answer to appear.

  1. Click on cell A4 with your mouse pointer.
  2. Type the equal sign ( = ) in cell A4.

Following the equal sign, add the cell references of the cells containing the data.

By using the cell references of data in the formula, the formula will automatically update the answer if the data in cells A1, A2, or A3 changes.

02
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Using Pointing to Add Cell References

Google Spreadsheets Formula Tutorial
Google Spreadsheets Formula Tutorial. © Ted French

The best way to add cell references is to use a feature called pointing, which allows you to click on the cell containing your data to add its cell reference to the formula.

After you've added the equal sign:

  1. Click on cell A1 with the mouse pointer to enter the cell reference into the formula.
  2. Type a plus ( + ) sign.
  3. Click on cell A2 with the mouse pointer to enter the cell reference into the formula.
  4. Type a minus ( - ) sign.
  5. Click on cell A3 with the mouse pointer to enter the cell reference into the formula.
  6. Press Enter on your keyboard. The answer 1 should appear in cell A4.
  7. Click on cell A4. The complete formula = A1 + A2 - A3 is shown in the formula bar above the worksheet.
03
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Mathematical Operators in a Google Spreadsheet Formula

The mathematical operator keys on the number pad are used to create Excel Formulas.
The mathematical operator keys on the number pad are used to create Excel Formulas. © Ted French

As seen in previous steps, writing a formula in a Google Spreadsheet is not difficult. Just combine the cell references of your data with the correct mathematical operator.

The mathematical operators used in Google Spreadsheet (and Microsoft Excel) formulas are similar to those used in math class:

  • Subtraction - minus sign ( - )
  • Addition - plus sign ( + )
  • Division - forward slash ( / )
  • Multiplication - asterisk ( * )
  • Exponentiation - caret ( ^ )
04
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The Google Spreadsheet Order of Operations

Google Spreadsheets Formula Tutorial
Google Spreadsheets Formula Tutorial. © Ted French

If more than one operator is used in a formula, Google Spreadsheet follows a specific order of operations, which you can change by adding brackets to the equation. An easy way to remember the order of operations is to use the acronym BEDMAS:

  1. Brackets
  2. Exponents
  3. Division
  4. Multiplication
  5. Addition
  6. Subtraction

Any operation(s) contained in brackets will be carried out first, followed by any exponents.

After that, a Google Spreadsheet considers division or multiplication operations to be of equal importance and carries out these operations in the order they occur, left to right, in the equation.

The same goes for the next two operations: addition and subtraction. They are considered equal in the order of operations. Whichever appears first in an equation is carried out first.