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Everything You Need to Know About Robots.txt

Robots.txt is a plain text file that instructs search engines on which parts of the website can crawl and which parts should be left untouched.
Robots.txt

The robots.txt file instructs search engines and crawlers on the pages they can interact with on our websites. It is a small yet powerful file that shapes a website’s visibility and accessibility in search engine results.

 

Understanding the nuances of robots.txt, its directives, and its strategic placement is essential for anyone needing to control the crawling and indexation of their content.

Understanding Robots.txt

At its core, robots.txt is a plain text file on a website’s server. It instructs search engine bots and other robot agents which parts of the website can crawl and which parts should be left untouched. This file directs their behaviour and ultimately influences which pages of a website appear in search engine results.

Directives

The robots.txt file communicates through a series of what are known as directives. Think of these as rules.

 

These directives are designed to be simple and intuitive, enabling website administrators and SEOs to fine-tune the behaviour of search engines. Let’s explore some of the key directives that can be included in a robots.txt file:

 

User-agent Directive: This directive specifies the user agent or web crawler to which the following rules apply. For example, “User-agent: Googlebot” would direct the subsequent rules towards Google’s search crawler.

 

Disallow Directive: The “Disallow” directive signals which parts of the website should not be crawled. For instance, “Disallow: /private/” would prevent crawlers from accessing the content within the “/private/” folder.

 

Allow Directive:  The “Allow” directive permits search engines to crawl specific sections if a broader “Disallow” rule exists. This can be particularly useful when exceptions to certain disallow rules are needed.

 

Crawl-Delay Directive:  This directive introduces a delay in seconds between successive crawls by a specific user agent. It helps mitigate the load on the server and prevents overwhelming traffic spikes. You shouldn’t need to use a crawl delay if you have a good server.

 

Sitemap Directive:  This directive informs search engines about the location of the website’s sitemap. This helps search engines find our most important pages and better understand the website’s structure and content.

Crafting an Effective Robots.txt File

Creating a well-structured and effective robots.txt file involves carefully balancing openness and security. Administrators must consider the following factors when drafting this file:

 

While robots.txt can restrict access to certain parts of a website, it’s essential to balance protecting sensitive content and ensuring search engines can access the necessary information, i.e. the pages we want to rank in organic search. Over-restrictive rules lead to reduced visibility in search results and customers being unable to find the content they’re looking for.

 

Misused directives can inadvertently block essential sections of a website from being crawled. Regularly reviewing and testing the robots.txt file can help prevent unintended accessibility issues.

 

Maintain consistency between the directives in the robots.txt file and the actual structure of the website. A mismatch can lead to confusion and unexpected crawling behaviour, such as crawl traps. Websites evolve, and so should their robots.txt files. Regularly update the file to reflect changes in content and page structure.

Placement of Robots.txt

Equally important as the content of the robots.txt file is its placement within the website’s architecture. To ensure optimal performance and accessibility, the file should be located in the website’s root directory.

 

The root directory is the primary folder where the website’s main files are stored. Placing the robots.txt file here allows search engine bots to easily locate and interpret its directives.

 

For example, if your website’s domain is “www.example.com,” the robots.txt file should be available at “www.example.com/robots.txt.”

Navigating Common Challenges

While robots.txt is a powerful tool for controlling how search engines access your website, there are potential pitfalls that you should be aware of. Let’s explore some common challenges that website owners might face:

 

A small typo or syntax error in the robots.txt file can lead to unintended consequences. A misplaced forward slash or misspelt directive could inadvertently block access to critical parts of your website or cause the rules not to work. Regularly review and test your robots.txt file to ensure it’s error-free.

 

Different search engines may interpret robots.txt directives differently. What works for one search engine might work differently for another. It’s essential to understand the nuances of how popular search engines interpret your directives to avoid unexpected outcomes and understand the name of each user agent; for example, Google has different user agents for News, Images, Ads, etc. You can also block specific crawling tools like Lumar/Deepcrawl or OnCrawl.

 

As mentioned earlier, robots.txt can’t be relied upon solely to keep private or sensitive content hidden – we should use meta noindex and other methods for this. If content is accessible through direct URLs, determined individuals can still find it, even if search engines are discouraged from indexing it.

 

While the “Disallow” directive can limit access to specific sections, using it excessively across your website might affect search engine performance. Be wary of how and where you use “Disallow” to ensure it doesn’t restrict your content’s discoverability.

Robots.txt and SEO

A well-optimised robots.txt file can contribute to better SEO results, and here’s how:

 

Duplicate Content: Robots.txt can prevent search engines from crawling duplicate or low-value content. This can help reduce the chances of search engines indexing multiple versions of the same content, which could dilute your search rankings.

 

Error Pages and Admin Sections: By blocking search engines from crawling error pages, login portals, and admin sections, you prevent these areas from being indexed. This ensures that users avoid accidentally stumbling upon unfinished or non-user-facing content or even confidential customer information.

Picture of Nikki Halliwell

Nikki Halliwell

Based in Manchester, UK, Nikki is a freelance Technical SEO Consultant. She has worked at several agencies and in-house and has worked across the health, hospitality and fashion industries and more. Nikki enjoys working with eCommerce websites and beyond to ensure that websites are easy to find, load quickly and work efficiently. 
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