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Apps Script

Custom Functions in Google Sheets

Google Sheets offers hundreds of built-in functions like AVERAGE, SUM, and VLOOKUP. When these aren’t enough for your needs, you can use Google Apps Script to write custom functions — say, to convert meters to miles or fetch live content from the Internet — then use them in Google Sheets just like a built-in function.

Getting started

Custom functions are created using standard JavaScript. If you're new to JavaScript, Codecademy offers a great course for beginners. (Note: this course was not developed by and is not associated with Google.)

Here's a simple custom function, named DOUBLE, which multiplies an input value by 2:

function DOUBLE(input) {
  return input * 2;
}

If you don't know how to write JavaScript and don't have time to learn, check the add-on store to see whether someone else has already built the custom function you need.

Creating a custom function

To write a custom function:

  1. Create or open a spreadsheet in Google Sheets.
  2. Select the menu item Tools > Script editor. If you are presented with a welcome screen, click Blank Project on the left to start a new project.
  3. Delete any code in the script editor. For the DOUBLE function above, simply copy and paste the code into the script editor.
  4. Select the menu item File > Save. Give the script project a name and click OK.
  5. All done! Now you can use the custom function.

Getting a custom function from the add-on store

The add-on store offers several custom functions as add-ons for Google Sheets. To use or explore these add-ons:

  1. Create or open a spreadsheet in the new version of Google Sheets.
  2. Select the menu item Add-ons > Get add-ons.
  3. The add-on store for Sheets will open. Click the search box in the top-right corner, then type "custom function" and press Enter.
  4. If you find a custom function add-on you're interested in, click Free to install it.
  5. A dialog box might tell you that the add-on requires authorization. If so, read the notice carefully, then click Accept. The add-on will then install.
  6. The add-on is now available in this spreadsheet. To use the add-on in a different spreadsheet, open the other spreadsheet and select the menu item Add-ons > [the add-on's name] > Use in this spreadsheet.

Using a custom function

Once you've written a custom function or installed one from the add-on store, it's as easy to use as a built-in function:

  1. Click the cell where you want to use the function.
  2. Type an equals sign (=) followed by the function name and any input value — for example, =DOUBLE(A1) — and press Enter.
  3. The cell will momentarily display Loading..., then return the result.

Guidelines for custom functions

Before writing your own custom function, there are a few guidelines to know.

Naming

In addition to the standard conventions for naming JavaScript functions, be aware of the following:

  • The name of a custom function must be distinct from the names of built-in functions like SUM().
  • The name of a custom function cannot end with an underscore (_), which denotes a private function in Apps Script.
  • The name of a custom function must be declared with the syntax function myFunction(), not var myFunction = new Function().
  • Capitalization does not matter, although the names of spreadsheet functions are traditionally uppercase.

Arguments

Like a built-in function, a custom function can take arguments as input values:

  • If you call your function with a reference to a single cell as an argument (like =DOUBLE(A1)), the argument will be the value of the cell.
  • If you call your function with a reference to a range of cells as an argument (like =DOUBLE(A1:B10)), the argument will be a two-dimensional array of the cells' values. For example, in the screenshot below, the arguments in =DOUBLE(A1:B2) are interpreted by Apps Script as double([[1,3],[2,4]]). Note that the sample code for DOUBLE from above would need to be modified to accept an array as input.


  • Custom function arguments must be deterministic. That is, built-in spreadsheet functions that return a different result each time they calculate — such as NOW() or RAND() — are not allowed as arguments to a custom function. If a custom function tries to return a value based on one of these volatile built-in function, it will display Loading... indefinitely.

Return values

Every custom function must return a value to display, such that:

  • If a custom function returns a value, the value displays in the cell the function was called from.
  • If a custom function returns a two-dimensional array of values, the values overflow into adjacent cells as long as those cells are empty. If this would cause the array to overwrite existing cell contents, the custom function will throw an error instead. For an example, see the section on optimizing custom functions.
  • A custom function cannot affect cells other than those it returns a value to. In other words, a custom function cannot edit arbitrary cells, only the cells it is called from and their adjacent cells. To edit arbitrary cells, use a custom menu to run a function instead.
  • A custom function call must return within 30 seconds. If it does not, the cell will display an error: Internal error executing the custom function.

Data types

Google Sheets stores data in different formats depending on the nature of the data. When these values are used in custom functions, Apps Script treats them as the appropriate data type in JavaScript. These are the most common areas of confusion:

  • Times and dates in Sheets become Date objects in Apps Script. If the spreadsheet and the script use different time zones (a rare problem), the custom function will need to compensate.
  • Duration values in Sheets also become Date objects, but working with them can be complicated.
  • Percentage values in Sheets become decimal numbers in Apps Script. For example, a cell with a value of 10% becomes 0.1 in Apps Script.

Autocomplete

The new version of Google Sheets supports autocomplete for custom functions much like for built-in functions. As you type a function name in a cell, you will see a list of built-in and custom functions that matches what you enter.

Custom functions will appear in this list if their script includes a JsDoc @customfunction tag, as in the DOUBLE() example below.

/**
 * Multiplies the input value by 2.
 *
 * @param {number} input The value to multiply.
 * @return The input multiplied by 2.
 * @customfunction
 */
function DOUBLE(input) {
  return input * 2;
}

Advanced

Using Apps Script services

Custom functions can call certain Apps Script services to perform more complex tasks. For example, a custom function can call the Language service to translate an English phrase into Spanish.

Unlike most other types of Apps Scripts, custom functions never ask users to authorize access to personal data. Consequently, they can only call services that do not have access to personal data, specifically the following:

Supported services Notes
Cache Works, but not particularly useful in custom functions
HTML Can generate HTML, but cannot display it (rarely useful)
JDBC
Language
Lock Works, but not particularly useful in custom functions
Maps Can calculate directions, but not display maps
Properties
Spreadsheet Read only (can use most get*() methods, but not set*())
URL Fetch
Utilities
XML

If your custom function throws the error message You do not have permission to call X service., the service requires user authorization and thus cannot be used in a custom function.

To use a service other than those listed above, create a custom menu that runs an Apps Script function instead of writing a custom function. A function that is triggered from a menu will ask the user for authorization if necessary and can consequently use all Apps Script services.

Sharing

Custom functions start out bound to the spreadsheet they were created in. This means that a custom function written in one spreadsheet can't be used in other spreadsheets unless you use one of the following methods:

  • Click Tools > Script editor to open the script editor, then copy the script text from the original spreadsheet and paste it into the script editor of another spreadsheet.
  • Make a copy of the spreadsheet that contains the custom function by clicking File > Make a copy. When a spreadsheet is copied, any scripts attached to it are copied as well. Anyone who has access to the spreadsheet can copy the script. (Collaborators who have only view access cannot open the script editor in the original spreadsheet. However, when they make a copy, they become the owner of the copy and can see the script.)
  • Publish the script as a Google Sheets add-on.

Optimization

Each time a custom function is used in a spreadsheet, Google Sheets makes a separate call to the Apps Script server. If your spreadsheet contains dozens (or hundreds, or thousands!) of custom function calls, this process can be quite slow.

Consequently, if you plan to use a custom function multiple times on a large range of data, consider modifying the function so that it accepts a range as input in the form of a two-dimensional array, then returns a two-dimensional array that can overflow into the appropriate cells.

For example, the DOUBLE() function shown above can be rewritten to accept a single cell or range of cells as follows:

/**
 * Multiplies the input value by 2.
 *
 * @param {number} input The value or range of cells to multiply.
 * @return The input multiplied by 2.
 * @customfunction
 */
function DOUBLE(input) {
  if (input.map) {            // Test whether input is an array.
    return input.map(DOUBLE); // Recurse over array if so.
  } else {
    return input * 2;
  }
}

The above approach uses the map method of JavaScript's Array object to recursively call DOUBLE on every value in the two-dimensional array of cells. It returns a two-dimensional array that contains the results. This way, you can call DOUBLE just once but have it calculate for a large number of cells at once, as shown in the screenshot below. (You could accomplish the same thing with nested if statements instead of the map call.)

Similarly, the custom function below efficiently fetches live content from the Internet and uses a two-dimensional array to display two columns of results with just a single function call. If each cell required its own function call, the operation would take considerably more time, since the Apps Script server would have to download and parse the XML feed each time.

/**
 * Show the title and date for the first page of posts on the Google Apps
 * Developer blog.
 *
 * @return Two columns of data representing posts on the Google Apps
 *     Developer blog.
 * @customfunction
 */
function getBlogPosts() {
  var array = [];
  var url = 'http://googleappsdeveloper.blogspot.com/atom.xml';
  var xml = UrlFetchApp.fetch(url).getContentText();
  var document = XmlService.parse(xml);
  var root = document.getRootElement();
  var atom = XmlService.getNamespace('http://www.w3.org/2005/Atom');
  var entries = document.getRootElement().getChildren('entry', atom);
  for (var i = 0; i < entries.length; i++) {
    var title = entries[i].getChild('title', atom).getText();
    var date = entries[i].getChild('published', atom).getValue();
    array.push([title, date]);
  }
  return array;
}

These techniques can be applied to nearly any custom function that is used repeatedly throughout a spreadsheet, although the implementation details will vary depending on the function's behavior.