Robots.txt

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The Robot Exclusion Standard, also known as the Robots Exclusion Protocol or robots.txt protocol, is a convention to prevent cooperating web crawlers and other web robots from accessing all or part of a website which is otherwise publicly viewable. Robots are often used by search engines to categorize and archive web sites, or by webmasters to proofread source code. The standard is different from, but can be used in conjunction with, Sitemaps, a robot inclusion standard for websites.

History

The standard was proposed by Martijn Koster,[1] [2] when working for Nexor[3] in February, 1994[4] on the www-talk mailing list, the main communication channel for WWW-related activities at the time.

It quickly became a de facto standard that present and future web crawlers were expected to follow; most complied, including those operated by search engines such as WebCrawler, Lycos and AltaVista.

About the standard

When a site owner wishes to give instructions to web robots they place a text file called robots.txt in the root of the web site hierarchy (e.g. https://www.example.com/robots.txt). This text file contains the instructions in a specific format (see examples below). Robots that choose to follow the instructions try to fetch this file and read the instructions before fetching any other file from the web site. If this file doesn't exist, web robots assume that the web owner wishes to provide no specific instructions, and crawl the entire site.

A robots.txt file on a website will function as a request that specified robots ignore specified files or directories when crawling a site. This might be, for example, out of a preference for privacy from search engine results, or the belief that the content of the selected directories might be misleading or irrelevant to the categorization of the site as a whole, or out of a desire that an application only operate on certain data. Links to pages listed in robots.txt can still appear in search results if they are linked to from a page that is crawled.[5]

A robots.txt file covers one origin. For websites with multiple subdomains, each subdomain must have its own robots.txt file. If example.com had a robots.txt file but a.example.com did not, the rules that would apply for example.com would not apply to a.example.com. In addition, each protocol and port needs its own robots.txt file; http://example.com/robots.txt does not apply to pages under https://example.com:8080/ or https://example.com/.

Some major search engines following this standard include Ask,[6] AOL (powered by Google),[7] Baidu,[8] Bing,[9] Google,[10] Yahoo! (powered by Bing -- [As of 14 November 2012]),[11] and Yandex.[12]

Disadvantages

Despite the use of the terms "allow" and "disallow", the protocol is purely advisory. It relies on the cooperation of the web robot, so that marking an area of a site out of bounds with robots.txt does not guarantee exclusion of all web robots. In particular, malicious web robots are unlikely to honor robots.txt; some may even use the robots.txt as a guide and go straight to the disallowed urls.

While it is possible to prevent directory searches by anybody including web robots by setting up the security of the server properly, when the disallow directives are provided in the robots.txt file, the existence of these directories is disclosed to everyone.

There is no official standards body or created by consensus in June 1994 by members of the robots mailing list (robots-request@nexor.co.uk). The information specifying the parts that should not be accessed is specified in a file called robots.txt in the top-level directory of the website. The robots.txt patterns are matched by simple substring comparisons, so care should be taken to make sure that patterns matching directories have the final '/' character appended, otherwise all files with names starting with that substring will match, rather than just those in the directory intended.

Alternatives

Many robots also pass a special user-agent to the web server when fetching content.[13] A web administrator could also configure the server to automatically return failure (or pass alternative content) when it detects a connection using one of the robots.[14][15]

Examples

This example tells all robots that they can visit all files because the wildcard * specifies all robots:

User-agent: *
Disallow:

The same result can be accomplished with an empty or missing robots.txt file.

This example tells all robots to stay out of a website:

User-agent: *
Disallow: /

This example tells all robots not to enter three directories:

User-agent: *
Disallow: /cgi-bin/
Disallow: /tmp/
Disallow: /junk/

This example tells all robots to stay away from one specific file:

User-agent: *
Disallow: /directory/file.html

Note that all other files in the specified directory will be processed.

This example tells a specific robot to stay out of a website:

User-agent: BadBot # replace 'BadBot' with the actual user-agent of the bot
Disallow: /

This example tells a specific robot not to enter one specific directory:

User-agent: BadBot # replace 'BadBot' with the actual user-agent of the bot
Disallow: /private/

Example demonstrating how comments can be used:

# Comments appear after the "#" symbol at the start of a line, or after a directive
User-agent: * # match all bots
Disallow: / # keep them out

It is also possible to list multiple robots with their own rules. The actual robot string is defined by the crawler. A few sites, such as Google, support several user-agent strings that allow the operator to deny access to a subset of their services by using specific user-agent strings.[10]

Example demonstrating multiple user-agents:

User-agent: googlebot        # all services
Disallow: /private/          # disallow this directory
 
User-agent: googlebot-news   # only the news service
Disallow: /                  # on everything
 
User-agent: *                # all robots
Disallow: /something/        # on this directory

Nonstandard extensions

Crawl-delay directive

Several major crawlers support a Crawl-delay parameter, set to the number of seconds to wait between successive requests to the same server:[6][12][16]

User-agent: *
Crawl-delay: 10

Allow directive

Some major crawlers support an Allow directive which can counteract a following Disallow directive.[17] [18] This is useful when one tells robots to avoid an entire directory but still wants some HTML documents in that directory crawled and indexed. While by standard implementation the first matching robots.txt pattern always wins, Google's implementation differs in that Allow patterns with equal or more characters in the directive path win over a matching Disallow pattern.[19] Bing uses the Allow or Disallow directive which is the most specific.[9]

In order to be compatible to all robots, if one wants to allow single files inside an otherwise disallowed directory, it is necessary to place the Allow directive(s) first, followed by the Disallow, for example:

Allow: /directory1/myfile.html
Disallow: /directory1/

This example will Disallow anything in /directory1/ except /directory1/myfile.html, since the latter will match first. The order is only important to robots that follow the standard; in the case of the Google or Bing bots, the order is not important.

Sitemap

Some crawlers support a Sitemap directive, allowing multiple Sitemaps in the same robots.txt in the form:[20]

Sitemap: http://www.gstatic.com/s2/sitemaps/profiles-sitemap.xml
Sitemap: http://www.google.com/hostednews/sitemap_index.xml

Host

Some crawlers (Yandex, Google) support a Host directive, allowing websites with multiple mirrors to specify their preferred domain.[21]

Host: example.com

Or alternatively

Host: www.example.com

Note: This is not supported by all crawlers and if used, it should be inserted at the bottom of the robots.txt file after Crawl-delay directive

Universal "*" match

The Robot Exclusion Standard does not mention anything about the "*" character in the Disallow: statement. Some crawlers like Googlebot recognize strings containing "*", while MSNbot and Teoma interpret it in different ways.[22]

Meta Tags and Headers

In addition to root-level robots.txt files, robots exclusion directives can be applied at a more granular level through the use of Robots meta tags and X-Robots-Tag HTTP headers.[23]

A "noindex" meta tag:

A "noindex" HTTP response header:

X-Robots-Tag: noindex

The X-Robots-Tag is only effective after the page has been requested and the server responds, and the robots meta tag is only effective after the page has loaded, whereas robots.txt is effective before the page is requested. Also, the robots meta tag only works on HTML pages, not images, text files, PDF documents, etc. Finally, if the pages/resources have already been excluded by a robots.txt file, then they will not be crawled and the meta tags and headers will have no effect.

See also

Internet portal

References

External links

  • www.robotstxt.org - The Web Robots Pages
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