Robots.txt Explained: Optimizing How Search Engines Crawl Your Website

Last Updated: 25 Feb, 2023

In the world of SEO, it is crucial to understand how search engines crawl and index your website. One of the most efficient tools is robots.txt, a simple file on your website that can determine your website’s search engine visibility.

In this comprehensive guide, we will explore what robots.txt is, how it works, and how to use it to improve your website’s SEO performance. From its origins to best practices, we will cover everything you need to know to get familiar with using a robots.txt file in your search engine optimization.

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What is a Robots.txt File?

Robots.txt is a tiny text file placed in your website’s root directory. Its purpose is to communicate with search engine robots (also known as “spiders” or “crawlers”) and instruct the search engines on which pages of your website they are allowed to crawl and index.

Simply put, robots.txt acts as a gatekeeper for your website. It tells search engines which pages to access and which they should ignore. Using robots.txt, you can prevent search engines from crawling and indexing certain pages on your website, such as login pages, PDF files, or sensitive information you don’t want to appear in search engine results.

The history of robots.txt dates back to the early days of the internet.

In 1994, when search engines were still in their infancy, Martijn Koster, a duct engineer and the founder of Aliweb, the internet’s first search engine, proposed the Robots Exclusion Protocol(REP). Since then, the REP has become the de facto standard for the owners to restrict the crawling to certain parts of their websites. 

In July 2019, Google made further progress by proposing the Robots Exclusion Protocol as an official standard under the Internet Engineering Task Force, with the goal of establishing a standardized set of rules for websites to communicate with web crawlers and search engine bots. The standard was published as RFC 9309 in September 2022. 

Nowadays, most major search engines such as Google, Yahoo, Bing, Baidu, Yandex, and DuckDuckGo use the robots.txt file to determine which pages to crawl and index. And robots.txt has remained an essential tool for SEO professionals and website owners as a simple but powerful way to control how search engines access and index your website. It can have a significant impact on your website’s search engine visibility and performance.

How Robots.txt Works

Robots.txt is a simple text file that search engines look for in the root directory of your website. When a search engine robot visits your website, it checks for a robots.txt file and follows its instructions. The robots.txt file uses a set of directives to tell search engines which pages or sections of your website they are allowed to crawl and index. 

There are two primary directives you can use in robots.txt:

  • User-agent: This directive tells search engines which robot or crawler the following instructions apply to. For example, you might use the user-agent directive to inform Google’sGoogle’s crawler (user-agent: Googlebot) to only crawl certain sections of your website.
  • Disallow: This directive tells search engines which pages or folders of your website they are not allowed to crawl and index.

Here are some examples of how robots.txt files might look like:

Disallow Google from crawling your website’s login page:  

User-agent: Googlebot 
Disallow: /login

Allow all search engine robots to access all parts of the website:

User-agent: * 
Disallow:

Block a specific robot from accessing the site: 

User-agent: BadBot 
Disallow: /

Block all robots from all content:

User-agent: * 
Disallow: /

Optimize Your Website’s Crawl Budget with Robots.txt

Crawl Budget refers to the number of pages that Googlebot crawls and indexes on a website over a specific period of time. When the number of pages on a website exceeds the crawl budget allocated to it, certain pages may remain unindexed. 

Using a robots.txt file to exclude pages that don’t need to be crawled, you can reduce the resources that search engine bots and crawlers use on your site. For example, if you have duplicates or low-quality pages, you can exclude them from crawling using the robots.txt file. In such a way, you prioritize crawling the important pages on your website, such as your homepage or product pages, which can help improve your site’s visibility in search results.

How to Create a Robots.txt File

Use a WordPress Plugin

WordPress is one of the world’s most popular content management systems (CMS), and it is very easy to create and customize a robots.txt file using plugins such as Yoast SEO, All in One SEO Pack, and Rank Math. 

To create a robots.txt file using one of these plugins, install and activate the plugin, navigate to the robots.txt editor in the plugin’s settings, and customize your file as desired.

How to Write a Robots.txt File in Yoast SEO?

  1. Log in to your WordPress website and go to the Dashboard.
  2. From the admin menu, select “Yoast SEO” and then click on “Tools”.
  3. Choose “File Editor” and click the “Create robots.txt file” button.
  4. Review or edit the file that Yoast SEO generated.
Screenshot 2023 02 25 at 16.23.28 Robots.txt Explained: Optimizing How Search Engines Crawl Your Website
Creating a robots.txt file using Yoast SEO is straightforward.

Create the file Manually

If you prefer to create your robots.txt file manually, you can create a new file in a plain text editor. Then, add your robots.txt instructions. You may google “Robots.txt generator” to find a suitable online generator tool to create the file effortlessly. Finally, save the file as “robots.txt” in the root directory of your website.

Test your robots.txt file

After deploying your robots.txt file, it’s important to test it to ensure it works as intended. You can use tools like Google’s robots.txt Tester to ensure that search engines can access the pages you want the search engines to crawl and index.

In conclusion, a robots.txt file is an essential tool that every website owner or administrator should utilize to control search engine crawling and indexing behavior on their site. It is crucial to regularly review and update your robots.txt file, particularly when making significant changes to your website’s structure or content. 

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