The Ultimate Guide to Creating Custom Robots.txt Files for Your Website in 2024

If you run a website, you‘ve probably heard of robots.txt files. But what exactly is a robots.txt file, and how can you leverage it to optimize your site‘s crawlability and search performance? In this comprehensive guide, we‘ll cover everything you need to know about creating effective robots.txt files in 2024.

What is a Robots.txt File?

A robots.txt file is a plain text file that lives in the root directory of your website (e.g. and provides instructions to search engine crawlers about which pages and sections of your site they are allowed to crawl. Also known as the Robots Exclusion Protocol or Standard, it acts as a rulebook, telling "robots" where they can and can‘t go on your website.

Here‘s a basic example of what a robots.txt file looks like:

User-agent: *
Disallow: /private/
Allow: /public/


In this example, we‘re instructing all crawlers (User-agent: *) not to access the "/private/" directory but allowing access to the "/public/" directory. We‘ve also specified the location of an XML sitemap.

According to a study by Ahrefs, over 70% of websites use robots.txt files. However, many of these files contain mistakes or are not optimized for SEO purposes.

What is the purpose of robots.txt?

The purpose of a robots.txt file is to control and optimize how search engine crawlers navigate and index your website. With a properly configured robots.txt file, you can:

  • Prevent crawlers from accessing duplicate content or non-public sections of your site
  • Optimize crawl budget by directing crawlers to your most important pages
  • Avoid overloading your server with too many crawler requests
  • Specify different crawling instructions for different search engines
  • Indicate the location of your XML sitemap(s)

Importantly, robots.txt is not a security mechanism and does not actually restrict access to your webpages. It acts more as a "No Entry" sign that most respectful crawlers will obey. We‘ll discuss some alternatives and best practices around this later.

How Search Engines Interpret Robots.txt Files

All major search engines, including Google, Bing, and Yahoo, utilize robots.txt files when crawling websites. However, they may interpret the instructions in slightly different ways.

When a crawler visits a website, it first checks for the existence of a robots.txt file. If one is found, the crawler parses the file from top to bottom, following the first matching rule for its particular user-agent. Crawlers will obey "disallow" directives over "allow" directives.

For example, if Googlebot sees these rules:

User-agent: *
Disallow: /

User-agent: Googlebot  
Allow: /

It will be allowed to crawl the entire site, since the Googlebot-specific rule takes precedence over the global disallow rule.

Google has provided the following guidance on how it interprets robots.txt files:

"Google will generally interpret errors or ambiguities in your robots.txt file in the least restrictive way. This means that if you have conflicting rules, the more permissive will generally win out. Where possible, our crawler will attempt to find a workable interpretation of your robots.txt and crawl your site, rather than assuming your site is completely off limits."

Source: Google Search Central Documentation

It‘s important to note that while respectable search engine crawlers will obey valid robots.txt rules, malicious bots may choose to ignore them completely. Additionally, disallowed pages may still appear in search results if they are linked to from other websites.

In September 2022, Google adjusted how it handles unsupported robots.txt rules, such as crawl-delay and noindex. These rules are now ignored rather than leading to a site being disallowed completely.

Common Directives and Syntax Used in Robots.txt Files

Now let‘s dive deeper into the anatomy and syntax of a robots.txt file. Each robots.txt file contains one or more discrete sets of rules, specifying directives for a particular user-agent.

Here are the key components:

  • User-agent: Specifies the name of the crawler the following rules apply to. The most common user agents are Googlebot, Bingbot, and Slurp (Yahoo). A * acts as a wildcard applying to all crawlers.

  • Allow: Specifies file paths or directories that the designated crawler is allowed to access. This directive is not required and generally not used. An empty Allow rule effectively allows crawling of the entire site.

  • Disallow: Specifies file paths or directories that the designated crawler is not allowed to access. Specific files can be disallowed using a relative path like /directory/file.html. An empty Disallow rule effectively allows crawling of the entire site.

  • Crawl-delay: Indicates the number of seconds a crawler should wait between successive requests. This can help reduce server load. Note that as of 2022, Google no longer supports this directive.

  • Sitemap: Specifies the full URL of an XML sitemap. This is independent of Allow/Disallow rules. Multiple Sitemap directives are allowed.

Here‘s an example robots.txt file showcasing these directives:

User-agent: Googlebot
Disallow: /downloads/
Allow: /

User-agent: Bingbot
Crawl-delay: 5
Allow: /


In this example, Googlebot is disallowed from crawling the /downloads/ directory but allowed everywhere else. Bingbot is instructed to wait 5 seconds between requests. Both crawlers are directed to the XML sitemap.

Wildcards and regular expressions can also be used for more granular rules, like disallowing all URLs that end with .pdf:

User-agent: *  
Disallow: /*.pdf$

Robots.txt rules are case-sensitive and should only use absolute paths relative to the root domain (starting with /). Comments can be added using # symbols.

Robots.txt Best Practices and Mistakes to Avoid

When creating your robots.txt file, follow these best practices to avoid common pitfalls:


  • Place your robots.txt file in the root directory of your domain
  • Specify directives for all major search engine user-agents
  • Use absolute paths (starting with /) for directories and files
  • Include a link to your XML sitemap using the Sitemap directive
  • Check your robots.txt file using Google Search Console‘s robots.txt Tester
  • Regularly review and update your robots.txt file as your site structure changes
  • Use robots.txt in conjunction with other methods like meta tags and canonicalization


  • Block CSS, JavaScript, or image files that impact page rendering
  • Use robots.txt to prevent indexing of pages with inbound links
  • Rely on robots.txt as a security measure for private content
  • Include Allow and Disallow rules that conflict with each other
  • Use robots.txt to cloak or show different content to search engines and users
  • Block all crawling of your site by accident (e.g. Disallow: /)

One of the most common robots.txt mistakes is blocking crawlers from accessing files needed for proper page rendering, like CSS and JavaScript. According to a study by Ahrefs, over 30% of websites block their own CSS files, causing crawlability issues.

Another frequent error is using robots.txt as the only method for controlling indexation. Remember that robots.txt does not prevent URLs from being indexed if they are linked to from other websites. Instead, use the noindex robots meta tag or X-Robots-Tag HTTP header to keep individual pages out of search results.

Google‘s John Mueller offered this advice:

"One common misconception about robots.txt is that it prevents a page from being indexed. That‘s not the case. If you want to prevent a page from being indexed, use a noindex robots meta tag instead."

Source: Google Search Central Office Hours

How Robots.txt Usage Affects SEO

The contents of your robots.txt file can have significant implications for your site‘s SEO performance. When optimized correctly, robots.txt can:

  • Conserve crawl budget by directing search engines to your most important pages
  • Prevent duplicate or thin content issues by disallowing crawling of parameterized URL variations
  • Consolidate ranking signals onto canonical URLs by disallowing crawling of alternate versions
  • Improve page load times and server performance by blocking resource-intensive URLs
  • Keep non-public or low-quality pages out of search results

However, an improperly configured robots.txt file can lead to major SEO issues like:

  • Accidental blocking of important pages or entire site sections from being crawled and indexed
  • Orphaned pages that can‘t be reached by search engines
  • Wasted crawl budget on unimportant or duplicate URLs
  • Indexing of faceted navigation or sorted product grids creating duplicate content

A famous example of robots.txt impacting SEO occurred in 2019 when the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol website accidentally used the Disallow: / directive, instructing search engines not to crawl any pages on the site. This led to the entire site being deindexed and disappearing from Google search results until the issue was fixed.

To avoid robots.txt mishaps, regularly audit your file and use the robots.txt Tester tools in Google Search Console and Bing Webmaster Tools. Monitor your site‘s crawl stats and indexation patterns to spot any sudden changes that could indicate a robots.txt error.

The Future of Robots.txt with AI and Visual Search

As artificial intelligence and computer vision advance, the nature of search engine crawling is evolving. Google has introduced AI-powered features like MUM and BARD that can understand content in more sophisticated ways beyond just text.

Additionally, the growth of visual search engines like Google Lens and Pinterest Lens means crawlers are increasingly analyzing images and videos rather than just HTML.

These developments may necessitate changes to the robots.txt protocol in the future to accommodate more advanced crawling and indexing behaviors. For example, additional directives may be needed to control how AI systems interpret and use page content or specifying which images should be analyzed for visual search.

As a webmaster, staying up-to-date on changes to search engine guidelines and robots.txt usage will be key to maintaining an optimized, crawlable website. Implementing structured data and optimizing for visual search will also grow in importance.

Useful Tools and Resources

To streamline the creation and testing of your robots.txt file, take advantage of these handy tools and educational resources:


Robots.txt files are a crucial tool for any website owner looking to optimize crawling and indexing by search engines. By providing a set of instructions for crawlers, you can improve your site‘s SEO, conserve server resources, and keep non-public content out of search results.

To make the most of your robots.txt file, remember these key takeaways:

  1. Place your robots.txt file in your root directory and specify rules for all major search engines
  2. Use Allow and Disallow directives to control which file paths can be crawled
  3. Include a link to your XML sitemap using the Sitemap directive
  4. Avoid common mistakes like blocking CSS files or using robots.txt as a substitute for noindex tags
  5. Regularly test and update your robots.txt file as your site structure changes
  6. Leverage additional methods like robots meta tags and canonicalization for more granular indexing control

By following the best practices outlined in this guide and staying informed about evolving crawler technology, you can craft a robots.txt file that elevates your website‘s search performance and user experience. Analyze the results over time and continue iterating to achieve optimal crawlability.

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