robots.txt file is one of the primary ways of telling a search engine where it can and can’t go on your website. All major search engines support the basic functionality it offers. There are some extra rules that are used by a few search engines which can be useful too. This guide covers all the uses of
robots.txt for your website. While it looks deceivingly simple, making a mistake in your
robots.txt can seriously harm your site, so make sure to read and understand this.
What is a
robots.txt file is a text file, following a strict syntax. It’s going to be read by search engine spiders. These spiders are also called robots, hence the name. The syntax is strict simply because it has to be computer readable. There’s no reading between the lines here, something is either 1, or 0.
Also called the “Robots Exclusion Protocol”, the
robots.txt file is the result of a consensus between early search engine spider developers. It’s not an official standard by any standards organization, but all major search engines do adhere to it.
What does the
robots.txt file do?
Search engines index the web by spidering pages. They follow links to go from site A to site B to site C and so on. Before a search engine spiders any page on a domain it hasn’t encountered before, it will open that domains
robots.txt file. The
robots.txt file tells the search engine which URLs on that site it’s allowed to index.
A search engine will cache the
robots.txt contents, but will usually refresh it multiple times a day. So changes will be reflected fairly quickly.
Where should I put my
robots.txt file should always be at the root of your domain. So if your domain is www.example.com, it should be found at
http://www.example.com/robots.txt. Do be aware: if your domain responds without www. too, make sure it has the same
robots.txt file! The same is true for http and https. When a search engine wants to spider the URL
http://example.com/test, it will grab
http://example.com/robots.txt. When it wants to spider that same URL but over https, it will grab the robots.txt from your https site too, so
It’s also very important that your
robots.txt file is really called
robots.txt. The name is case sensitive. Don’t make any mistakes in it or it will just not work.
Pros and cons of using
Pro: crawl budget
Each site has an “allowance” in how many pages a search engine spider will crawl on that site, SEOs call this the crawl budget. By blocking sections of your site from the search engine spider, you allow your crawl budget to be used for other sections. Especially on sites where a lot of SEO clean up has to be done, it can be very beneficial to first quickly block the search engines from crawling a few sections.
Con: not removing a page from search results
robots.txt file you can tell a spider where it cannot go on your site. You can not tell a search engine which URLs it cannot show in the search results. This means that not allowing a search engine to crawl a URL – called “blocking” it – does not mean that URL will not show up in the search results. If the search engine finds enough links to that URL, it will include it, it will just not know what’s on that page.
If you want to reliably block a page from showing up in the search results, you need to use a meta robots
noindex tag. That means the search engine has to be able to index that page and find the
noindex tag, so the page should not be blocked by
Con: not spreading link value
Because the search engine can’t crawl the page, it cannot distribute the link value for links to your blocked pages. If it could crawl, but not index the page, it could still spread the link value across the links it finds on the page. When a page is blocked with
robots.txt, the link value is lost.
robots.txt file consists of one or more blocks of directives, each started by a user-agent line. The “user-agent” is the name of the specific spider it addresses. You can either have one block for all search engines, using a wildcard for the user-agent, or specific blocks for specific search engines. A search engine spider will always pick the most specific block that matches its name.
These blocks look like this (don’t be scared, we’ll explain below):
User-agent: * Disallow: / User-agent: Googlebot Disallow: User-agent: bingbot Disallow: /not-for-bing/
Disallow should not be case sensitive, so whether you write them lowercase or capitalize them is up to you. The values are case sensitive however,
/photo/ is not the same as
/Photo/. We like to capitalize directives for the sake of readability in the file.
The first bit of every block of directives is the user-agent. A user-agent identifies a specific spider. The user-agent field is matched against that specific spider’s (usually longer) user-agent. For instance, the most common spider from Google has the following user-agent:
Mozilla/5.0 (compatible; Googlebot/2.1; +http://www.google.com/bot.html)
A relatively simple
User-agent: Googlebot line will do the trick if you want to tell this spider what to do.
Note that most search engines have multiple spiders. They will use specific spiders for their normal index, for their ad programs, for images, for videos, etc.
Search engines will always choose the most specific block of directives they can find. Say you have 3 sets of directives: one for
*, one for
Googlebot and one for
Googlebot-News. If a bot comes by whose user-agent is
Googlebot-Video, it would follow the
Googlebot restrictions. A bot with the user-agent
Googlebot-News would use the more specific
The most common user agents for search engine spiders
Below is a list of the user-agents you can use in your
robots.txt file to match the most commonly used search engines:
|Bing||Images & Video||
The second line in any block of directives is the
Disallow line. You can have one or more of these lines, specifying parts of the site the specified spider can’t access. An empty
Disallow line means you’re not disallowing anything, so basically it means that spider can access all sections of your site.
User-agent: * Disallow: /
The example above would block all search engines that “listen” to
robots.txt from crawling your site.
User-agent: * Disallow:
The example above would, with only one character less, allow all search engines to crawl your entire site.
User-agent: googlebot Disallow: /Photo
The example above would block Google from crawling the
Photo directory on your site and everything in it. This means all the subdirectories of the
/Photo directory would also not be spidered. It would not block Google from crawling the
photo directory, as these lines are case sensitive.
How to use wildcards / regular expressions
“Officially”, the robots.txt standard doesn’t support regular expressions or wildcards. However, all major search engines do understand it. This means you can have lines like this to block groups of files:
Disallow: /*.php Disallow: /copyrighted-images/*.jpg
In the example above,
* is expanded to whatever filename it matches. Note that the rest of the line is still case sensitive, so the second line above will not block a file called
/copyrighted-images/example.JPG from being crawled.
Some search engines, like Google, allow for more complicated regular expressions. Be aware that not all search engines might understand this logic. The most useful feature this adds is the
$, which indicates the end of a URL. In the following example you can see what this does:
/index.php could not be indexed, but
/index.php?p=1 could be indexed. Of course, this is only useful in very specific circumstances and also pretty dangerous: it’s easy to unblock things you didn’t actually want to unblock.
robots.txt crawl directives
On top of the
User-agent directives there are a couple of other crawl directives you can use. These directives are not supported by all search engine crawlers so make sure you’re aware of their limitations.
While not in the original “specification”, there was talk of an
allow directive very early on. Most search engines seem to understand it, and it allows for simple, and very readable directives like this:
Disallow: /wp-admin/ Allow: /wp-admin/admin-ajax.php
The only other way of achieving the same result without an
allow directive would have been to specifically
disallow every single file in the
Supported by Yandex (and not by Google even though some posts say it does), this directive lets you decide whether you want the search engine to show
www.example.com. Simply specifying it as follows does the trick:
Because only Yandex supports the
host directive, we wouldn’t advise you to rely on it. Especially as it doesn’t allow you to define a scheme (http or https) either. A better solution that works for all search engines would be to 301 redirect the hostnames that you don’t want in the index to the version that you do want. In our case, we redirect www.yoast.com to yoast.com.
Supported by Yahoo!, Bing and Yandex the
crawl-delay directive can be very useful to slow down these three, sometimes fairly crawl-hungry, search engines. These search engines have slightly different ways of reading the directive, but the end result is basically the same.
A line as follows below would lead to Yahoo! and Bing waiting 10 seconds after a crawl action. Yandex would only access your site once in every 10 second timeframe. A semantic difference, but interesting to know. Here’s the example
Do take care when using the
crawl-delay directive. By setting a crawl delay of 10 seconds you’re only allowing these search engines to index 8,640 pages a day. This might seem plenty for a small site, but on large sites it isn’t all that much. On the other hand, if you get 0 to no traffic from these search engines, it’s a good way to save some bandwidth.
sitemap directive for XML Sitemaps
sitemap directive you can tell search engines – specifically Bing, Yandex and Google – the location of your XML sitemap. You can, of course, also submit your XML sitemaps to each search engine using their respective webmaster tools solutions. We, in fact, highly recommend that you do. Search engine’s webmaster tools programs will give you very valuable information about your site. If you don’t want to do that, adding a
sitemap line to your
robots.txt is a good quick option.
There are various tools out there that can help you validate your
robots.txt, but when it comes to validating crawl directives, we like to go to the source. Google has a
robots.txt testing tool in its Google Search Console (under the Crawl menu) and we’d highly suggest using that:
Be sure to test your changes thoroughly before you put them live! You wouldn’t be the first to accidentally
robots.txt-block your entire site into search engine oblivion.