Robots.txt: Best Practices for SEO

Rebecca Nguyen
SEO
December 20, 2020
8 MINUTES READ

When it comes to maximizing online website traffic, we all want to do so by checking our search ranking and how it could improve. Of course, the name of the game is search engine optimization, and the rules of the game, well they are not always easy to check off. 

There are a lot of simple things, content and keyword-wise, that can be done to give certain sites advantages and a competitive edge. But what about the foundation of it all? That can be found in your website's robots.txt file. 

Search engines have web crawlers that essentially hit up websites, look at what content is available, and organize it to provide a searcher the best form of information available. To crawl and process content from the site appropriately, the search engine robot needs instructions in the form of the robots.txt page from your website. 

Creating a robots.txt file and using it effectively to optimize a webpage for search engine purposes can be a confusing process. There are specifics to keep in mind that can make or break how accessible a website is to search engine robots. 

From following the appropriate format and syntax to placing the robots.txt file in the correct site location, it's essential to follow some basic guidelines and Robots txt best practices to manage traffic to your website. 

Robots.txt Files: What They Are and Why You Want One

Let's dive a little deeper into what a robots.txt file is and how it works in the scope of SEO. Here's what you need to know about Robots txt best practices.

A robots.txt file is a plain text file created in the robots exclusion standard or RES. The RES is a protocol for the language that the web crawlers can read. Since there are multiple web crawlers from various search engines, it's important to avoid misinterpretation of what to access. The RES allows you to be specific on which web crawlers to block from what, while also being pretty flexible in allowing you to secure a whole site or just portions of it if needed. 

Most web crawlers will scan the robots.txt file to determine what content they should be able to request from your website. Keep in mind that web crawlers with malicious intent can choose to ignore the instructions or even use them as a guide to finding site weaknesses or contact information for spamming. If there is no robots.txt file to be found, then a crawler will consider a site open to any requests on any URL or media file. 

A site's robot.txt file is also always available for anyone to view. This means it shouldn't be used to hide any private information or information that could be compromised. Look into alternative methods to hide entire pages of information from search results, such as a noindex directive

Consider what would happen if you didn't have a robots.txt file attached to your site. You could get multiple requests from third-party crawlers that slow down your site or server. Overloading a server or causing server errors will only hurt your accessibility to your audience. 

Although some third-party crawlers still have the option to ignore the blocks, it would be worth it to create the robots.txt file to obstruct most other unwanted hits and prevent them from scouring your content. 

Creating a Robots.txt File

To get started creating a robots.txt file, you can use a simple text editor (not a word processor) to make the file and upload it to your main root directory for your website. Make sure it is located at the root of your website name. All web crawlers are looking for "/robots.txt" right after your base URL. 

A set of rules are what makes up a robot.txt file. The first of the parameters to be included in each rule is a user agent, which is the web crawler's name that you are instructing. 

An example of this is Googlebot, but there are so many web crawlers that it is important to specify who you aim to block out or allow from specific areas. An asterisk (*) in place of a user agent name means that ALL bots should follow the rule, should they choose to follow it. 

The second parameter is one of the key instruction words: allow or disallow. This should be followed by the folder name or file path name you want to allow or disallow the crawler access. 

Doing this lets you specify what parts of your website you want to keep from being indexed for search results and keeps you from getting hits on your entire set. Clarifying this is especially helpful if not every file would help you in your SEO quest. 

Another common key part to the robots.txt file is adding the link to your XML sitemap. Attaching this is so that the web crawlers can easily evaluate your content and index whatever content you are allowing so that the more valuable information, videos, and images can surface. 

These are just the basics of setting up a workable robots.txt file for your site. Building on this, you should be able to create rules that web crawlers can navigate to produce significant search results that increase your website traffic. This will also take an effort to analyze your website to pick out what information or media will drive an audience to want to see more of the content you offer. 

Best Practices for Robots.txt Files

This overview of robots.txt files will hopefully help you create your own website's file, and you can follow the best practices below to optimize your website for search engine crawlers fully. We cover making sure your blocked URLs aren't accessible through another site, using symbols to simplify when a pattern exists, organizing your file appropriately, and testing out your robots.txt file to see that it does what you want it to do. 

Testing Your Robots.txt File

It's important to test your robots.txt file to ensure you do not block entire portions of your website from popping up in search results. Doing this through a testing tool can let you know if a specific URL is blocked for a certain web search robot. 

This can be especially helpful if you have multiple aspects that you are trying to limit. You wouldn't want a simple switch of the words ‘allow’ or ‘disallow’ to take your web page, media file, or resource file out of the SEO game completely. 

Pattern Matching

Take advantage of pattern matching in robots.txt files to account for variations in URLs. Pattern matching can include an asterisk, as previously mentioned, to represent all crawlers. This can be used in the user agent line to disallow a specific page from all search engine robots that read the file and choose to obey it. 

Another pattern matching symbol is the dollar sign ($), which can be used at the end of a specific string to prevent a crawler from accessing any URL that ends with that extension or file type. 

Placement, Syntax, and Format

Also, being careful of placement, syntax, and format is essential for a robots.txt page that will work for you. Again, the file should be placed in the website’s root versus under a subpage URL or a different domain, as each site URL can only have one robots.txt file. The web crawler will only look in that root placement, so the same file placed in any other location is rendered irrelevant. 

The directives inside the robots.txt file should be grouped by what user agent or crawler is being addressed. These groups are scanned top to bottom, meaning that a web crawler will follow the first specific set of rules that match it. Keep this in mind when defining your specifications and identifying which web crawlers you allow in or are blocking out. 

Outside Linking

A URL that is included in a robots.txt file can sometimes still be indexed despite there being a directive to disallow it from a specific or multiple crawlers. How can this be? When an outside page includes a link to a page you might want to be blocked, a web crawler will still be able to see that information when scanning and indexing for content. This is another example of when investigating further options to protect certain web pages would be useful. 

Using a robots.txt file for your website is to your advantage when it comes to directing what site links you want to push for search engine promotion and keeping excessive search engine crawler requests at bay. 

It's a foundational part that you don't want to let slip through the cracks of your SEO preparations, especially when it comes to Robots txt best practices. Keeping in mind these guidelines and recommendations will help you build a robots.txt page that will not hinder your website's performance in search engine results pages and will improve your site speed and accessibility. 

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