Ever heard the term robots.txt and wondered how it applies to your website? Most websites have a robots.txt file, but that doesn’t mean most site owners understand it. In this post, we hope to change that by offering a deep dive into the WordPress robots.txt file, as well as how it can control and limit access to your site.
There’s a lot to cover so let’s get started!
Before we can talk about the WordPress robots.txt file, it’s important to define what a “robot” is in this case. Robots are any type of “bot” that visits websites on the Internet. The most common example is search engine crawlers. These bots “crawl” around the web to help search engines like Google index and rank the billions of pages on the Internet.
So, bots are, in general, a good thing for the Internet…or at least a necessary thing. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that you, or other site owners, want bots running around unfettered. The desire to control how web robots interact with websites led to the creation of the robots exclusion standard in the mid-1990s. Robots.txt is the practical implementation of that standard – it allows you to control how participating bots interact with your site. You can block bots entirely, restrict their access to certain areas of your site, and more.
That “participating” part is important, though. Robots.txt cannot force a bot to follow its directives. And malicious bots can and will ignore the robots.txt file. Additionally, even reputable organizations ignore some commands that you can put in robots.txt. For example, Google will ignore any rules that you add to your robots.txt about how frequently its crawlers visit. You can adjust the rate at which Google crawls your website in the Crawl Rate Settings page for your property in Google Search Console.
How To Find robots.txt?
The robots.txt file lives in the root of your website, so adding /robots.txt after your domain should load the file (if you have one). For example, https://kinsta.com/robots.txt.
When Should You Use a robots.txt File?
For most site owners, the benefits of a well-structured robots.txt file boil down to two categories:
- Optimizing search engines’ crawl resources by telling them not to waste time on pages you don’t want to be indexed. This helps ensure that search engines focus on crawling the pages that you care about the most.
- Optimizing your server usage by blocking bots that are wasting resources.
Robots.txt Isn’t Specifically About Controlling Which Pages Get Indexed In Search Engines
Robots.txt is not a foolproof way to control what pages search engines index. If your primary goal is to stop certain pages from being included in search engine results, the proper approach is to use a meta noindex tag or password protection.
This is because your robots.txt is not directly telling search engines not to index content – it’s just telling them not to crawl it. While Google won’t crawl the marked areas from inside your site, Google itself states that if an external site links to a page that you exclude with your robots.txt file, Google still might index that page.
John Mueller, a Google Webmaster Analyst, has also confirmed that if a page has links pointed to it, even if it’s blocked by robots.txt, might still get indexed. Below is what he had to say in a Webmaster Central hangout:
One thing maybe to keep in mind here is that if these pages are blocked by robots.txt, then it could theoretically happen that someone randomly links to one of these pages. And if they do that then it could happen that we index this URL without any content because its blocked by robots.txt. So we wouldn’t know that you don’t want to have these pages actually indexed.
Whereas if they’re not blocked by robots.txt you can put a noindex meta tag on those pages. And if anyone happens to link to them, and we happen to crawl that link and think maybe there’s something useful here then we would know that these pages don’t need to be indexed and we can just skip them from indexing completely.
So, in that regard, if you have anything on these pages that you don’t want to have indexed then don’t disallow them, use noindex instead.
Do I Need a robots.txt File?
It’s important to remember that you don’t have to have a robots.txt file on your site. If you don’t have a problem with all bots having free reign to crawl all of your pages, then you might choose not to bother adding a one, since you have no real instructions to give crawlers.
In some cases you may not even be able to add a robots.txt file due to limitations with the CMS you’re using. This is fine, and there are other methods for instructing bots about how to crawl your pages without using a robots.txt file.
What HTTP Status Code Should Be Returned for the robots.txt File?
The robots.txt file must return a a 200 OK HTTP status code In order for crawlers to be able to access it.
If you’re having issues getting your pages indexed by search engines, it’s worth double checking the status code returned for your robots.txt file. Anything other than a 200 status code could prevent crawlers from accessing your site.
Some site owners have reported pages being deindexed due to their robots.txt file returning a non-200 status. A website owner asked about an indexing issue in a Google SEO office-hours hangout in March 2022 and John Mueller explained that the robots.txt file should either return a 200 status if they are present, or a 4XX status if the file doesn’t exist. In this case, a 500 internal server error was being returned, which Mueller said might have resulted in Googlebot excluding the site from indexing.
The same can be seen in this Tweet, where a site owner reported his entire site being deindexed due to a robots.txt file returning a 500 error.
[Quick SEO tip]
If you are having issue with indexing, make sure your robots.txt file is returning either 200 or 404.
If your file returns 500, Google will eventually deindex your website, as I've seen with this project. pic.twitter.com/8KiYLgDVRo
— Antoine Eripret (@antoineripret) November 14, 2022
Can the Robots Meta Tag Be Used Instead of a robots.txt File?
No. The robots meta tag allows you to control which pages are indexed, while the robots.txt file allows you to control which pages are crawled. Bots must first crawl pages in order to see the meta tags, so you should avoid attempting to use both a disallow and a noindex meta tag, as the noindex wouldn’t be picked up.
If your goal is to exclude a page from the search engines, the noindex meta tag is usually the best option.
How To Create And Edit Your WordPress robots.txt File
By default, WordPress automatically creates a virtual robots.txt file for your site. So even if you don’t lift a finger, your site should already have the default robots.txt file. You can test if this is the case by appending “/robots.txt” to the end of your domain name. For example, “https://kinsta.com/robots.txt” brings up the robots.txt file that we use here at Kinsta.
Example of a robots.txt File
Here’s an example of Kinsta’s robots.txt file:
This provides all robots with instructions on which paths to ignore (e.g. the wp-admin path), with any exceptions (e.g. the admin-ajax.php file), along with Kinsta’s XML sitemap locations.
Because this file is virtual, though, you can’t edit it. If you want to edit your robots.txt file, you’ll need to actually create a physical file on your server that you can manipulate as needed. Here are three simple ways to do that:
How to Create And Edit A robots.txt File in WordPress With Yoast SEO
If you’re using the popular Yoast SEO plugin, you can create (and later edit) your robots.txt file right from Yoast’s interface. Before you can access it, though, you need got to SEO → Tools and click on File editor
And once you click that button, you’ll be able to edit the contents of your robots.txt file directly from the same interface and then save any changes made.
Assuming you don’t already have a physical robots.txt file, Yoast will give you the option to Create robots.txt file:
As you read on, we’ll dig more into what types of directives to put in your WordPress robots.txt file.
How to Create And Edit A robots.txt File With All in One SEO
If you’re using the almost-as-popular-as-Yoast All in One SEO Pack plugin, you can also create and edit your WordPress robots.txt file right from the plugin’s interface. All you need to do is go to All in One SEO → Tools:
Then, toggle the Enable Custom robots.txt radio button so it’s on. This will enable you to create custom rules and add them to your robots.txt file:
How to Create And Edit A Robots.txt File via FTP
If you’re not using an SEO plugin that offers robots.txt functionality, you can still create and manage your robots.txt file via SFTP. First, use any text editor to create an empty file named “robots.txt”:
Then, connect to your site via SFTP and upload that file to the root folder of your site. You can make further modifications to your robots.txt file by editing it via SFTP or uploading new versions of the file.
What To Put In Your Robots.txt File
Ok, now you have a physical robots.txt file on your server that you can edit as needed. But what do you actually do with that file? Well, as you learned in the first section, robots.txt lets you control how robots interact with your site. You do that with two core commands:
- User-agent – this lets you target specific bots. User agents are what bots use to identify themselves. With them, you could, for example, create a rule that applies to Bing, but not to Google.
- Disallow – this lets you tell robots not to access certain areas of your site.
There’s also an Allow command that you’ll use in niche situations. By default, everything on your site is marked with Allow, so it’s not necessary to use the Allow command in 99% of situations. But it does come in handy where you want to Disallow access to a folder and its child folders but Allow access to one specific child folder.
You add rules by first specifying which User-agent the rule should apply to and then listing out what rules to apply using Disallow and Allow. There are also some other commands like Crawl-delay and Sitemap, but these are either:
- Ignored by most major crawlers, or interpreted in vastly different ways (in the case of crawl delay)
- Made redundant by tools like Google Search Console (for sitemaps)
Let’s go through some specific use cases to show you how this all comes together.
How To Use Robots.txt Disallow All To Block Access To Your Entire Site
Let’s say you want to block all crawler access to your site. This is unlikely to occur on a live site, but it does come in handy for a development site. To do that, you would add the robots.txt disallow all code to your WordPress robots.txt file:
User-agent: * Disallow: /
What’s going on in that code?
The *asterisk next to User-agent means “all user agents”. The asterisk is a wildcard, meaning it applies to every single user agent. The /slash next to Disallow says you want to disallow access to all pages that contain “yourdomain.com/” (which is every single page on your site).
How To Use Robots.txt To Block A Single Bot From Accessing Your Site
Let’s change things up. In this example, we’ll pretend that you don’t like the fact that Bing crawls your pages. You’re Team Google all the way and don’t even want Bing to look at your site. To block only Bing from crawling your site, you would replace the wildcard *asterisk with Bingbot:
User-agent: Bingbot Disallow: /
Essentially, the above code says to only apply the Disallow rule to bots with the User-agent “Bingbot”. Now, you’re unlikely to want to block access to Bing – but this scenario does come in handy if there’s a specific bot that you don’t want to access your site. This site has a good listing of most service’s known User-agent names.
How To Use Robots.txt To Block Access To A Specific Folder Or File
For this example, let’s say that you only want to block access to a specific file or folder (and all of that folder’s subfolders). To make this apply to WordPress, let’s say you want to block:
- The entire wp-admin folder
You could use the following commands:
User-agent: * Disallow: /wp-admin/ Disallow: /wp-login.php
How To Use Robots.txt Allow All To Give Robots Full Access to Your Site
If you currently have no reason to block crawlers from accessing any of your pages, you can add the following command.
User-agent: * Allow: /
User-agent: * Disallow:
How to Use Robots.txt To Allow Access To A Specific File In A Disallowed Folder
Ok, now let’s say that you want to block an entire folder, but you still want to allow access to a specific file inside that folder. This is where the Allow command comes in handy. And it’s actually very applicable to WordPress. In fact, the WordPress virtual robots.txt file illustrates this example perfectly:
User-agent: * Disallow: /wp-admin/ Allow: /wp-admin/admin-ajax.php
This snippet blocks access to the entire /wp-admin/ folder except for the /wp-admin/admin-ajax.php file.
How To Use Robots.txt To Stop Bots From Crawling WordPress Search Results
One WordPress-specific tweak you might want to make is to stop search crawlers from crawling your search results pages. By default, WordPress uses the query parameter “?s=”. So to block access, all you need to do is add the following rule:
User-agent: * Disallow: /?s= Disallow: /search/
How To Create Different Rules For Different Bots In Robots.txt
Up until now, all the examples have dealt with one rule at a time. But what if you want to apply different rules to different bots? You simply need to add each set of rules under the User-agent declaration for each bot. For example, if you want to make one rule that applies to all bots and another rule that applies to just Bingbot, you could do it like this:
User-agent: * Disallow: /wp-admin/ User-agent: Bingbot Disallow: /
In this example, all bots will be blocked from accessing /wp-admin/, but Bingbot will be blocked from accessing your entire site.
Testing Your Robots.txt File
To ensure your robots.txt file has been setup correctly and is working as expected, you should test it thoroughly. A single misplaced character can be catastrophic for a site’s performance is the search engines, so testing can help to avoid potential issues.
Google’s robots.txt Tester
Simply navigate to the tool and select the property for the site you want to test, then scroll to the bottom of the page and enter any URL into the field, then click the red TEST button:
You’ll see a green Allowed response if everything is crawlable.
You can also select which version of Googlebot you would like to run the test with, choosing from Googlebot, Googlebot-News, Googlebot-Image, Googlebot-Video, Googlebot-Mobile, Mediapartners-Google or Adsbot-Google.
You could also test each individual URL you have blocked to ensure they are, in fact, blocked and/or Disallowed.
Beware of the UTF-8 BOM
BOM stands for byte order mark and is basically an invisible character that is sometimes added to files by old text editors and the like. If this happens to your robots.txt file, Google might not read it correctly. This is why it is important to check your file for errors. For example, as seen below, our file had an invisible character and Google complains about the syntax not being understood. This essentially invalidates the first line of our robots.txt file altogether, which is not good! Glenn Gabe has an excellent article on how a UTF-8 Bom could kill your SEO.
Googlebot is Mostly US-Based
It’s also important not to block the Googlebot from the United States, even if you are targeting a local region outside of the United States. They sometimes do local crawling, but the Googlebot is mostly US-based.
Googlebot is mostly US-based, but we also sometimes do local crawling. https://t.co/9KnmN4yXpe
— Google Search Central (@googlesearchc) November 13, 2017
To actually provide some context for the points listed above, here is how some of the most popular WordPress sites are using their robots.txt files.
In addition to restricting access to a number of unique pages, TechCrunch notably disallows crawlers to:
They also set special restrictions on two bots:
In case you’re interested, IRLbot is a crawler from a Texas A&M University research project. That’s odd!
The Obama Foundation
The Obama Foundation hasn’t made any special additions, opting exclusively to restrict access to /wp-admin/.
Angry Birds has the same default setup as The Obama Foundation. Nothing special is added.
Finally, Drift opts to define its sitemaps in the Robots.txt file, but otherwise, leave the same default restrictions as The Obama Foundation and Angry Birds.
Use Robots.txt The Right Way
As we wrap up our robots.txt guide, we want to remind you one more time that using a Disallow command in your robots.txt file is not the same as using a noindex tag. Robots.txt blocks crawling, but not necessarily indexing. You can use it to add specific rules to shape how search engines and other bots interact with your site, but it will not explicitly control whether your content is indexed or not.
For most casual WordPress users, there’s not an urgent need to modify the default virtual robots.txt file. But if you’re having issues with a specific bot, or want to change how search engines interact with a certain plugin or theme that you’re using, you might want to add your own rules.
We hope you enjoyed this guide and be sure to leave a comment if you have any further questions about using your WordPress robots.txt file.