Internet-Draft REP July 2022
Koster, et al. Expires 7 January 2023 [Page]
Network Working Group
Intended Status:
Standards Track
M. Koster, Ed.
Stalworthy Computing, Ltd.
G. Illyes, Ed.
Google LLC.
H. Zeller, Ed.
Google LLC.
L. Sassman, Ed.
Google LLC.

Robots Exclusion Protocol


This document specifies and extends the "Robots Exclusion Protocol" method originally defined by Martijn Koster in 1996 for service owners to control how content served by their services may be accessed, if at all, by automatic clients known as crawlers. Specifically, it adds definition language for the protocol and instructions for handling errors and caching.

Status of This Memo

This Internet-Draft is submitted in full conformance with the provisions of BCP 78 and BCP 79.

Internet-Drafts are working documents of the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF). Note that other groups may also distribute working documents as Internet-Drafts. The list of current Internet-Drafts is at

Internet-Drafts are draft documents valid for a maximum of six months and may be updated, replaced, or obsoleted by other documents at any time. It is inappropriate to use Internet-Drafts as reference material or to cite them other than as "work in progress."

This Internet-Draft will expire on 7 January 2023.

1. Introduction

This document applies to services that provide resources that clients can access through URIs as defined in [RFC3986]. For example, in the context of HTTP, a browser is a client that displays the content of a web page.

Crawlers are automated clients. Search engines for instance have crawlers to recursively traverse links for indexing as defined in [RFC8288].

It may be inconvenient for service owners if crawlers visit the entirety of their URI space. This document specifies the rules originally defined by the "Robots Exclusion Protocol" [ROBOTSTXT] that crawlers are requested to honor when accessing URIs.

These rules are not a form of access authorization.

1.1. Requirements Language

The key words "MUST", "MUST NOT", "REQUIRED", "SHALL", "SHALL NOT", "SHOULD", "SHOULD NOT", "RECOMMENDED", "NOT RECOMMENDED", "MAY", and "OPTIONAL" in this document are to be interpreted as described in BCP 14 [RFC2119] [RFC8174] when, and only when, they appear in all capitals, as shown here.

2. Specification

2.1. Protocol Definition

The protocol language consists of rule(s) and group(s) that the service makes available in a file named 'robots.txt' as described in Section 2.3:

  • Rule: A line with a key-value pair that defines how a crawler may access URIs. See Section 2.2.2.
  • Group: One or more user-agent lines that is followed by one or more rules. The group is terminated by a user-agent line or end of file. See Section 2.2.1. The last group may have no rules, which means it implicitly allows everything.

2.2. Formal Syntax

Below is an Augmented Backus-Naur Form (ABNF) description, as described in [RFC5234].

    robotstxt = *(group / emptyline)
    group = startgroupline                ; We start with a user-agent
           *(startgroupline / emptyline)  ; ... and possibly more
                                          ; user-agents
           *(rule / emptyline)            ; followed by rules relevant
                                          ; for UAs

    startgroupline = *WS "user-agent" *WS ":" *WS product-token EOL

    rule = *WS ("allow" / "disallow") *WS ":"
          *WS (path-pattern / empty-pattern) EOL

    ; parser implementors: define additional lines you need (for
    ; example, sitemaps).

    product-token = identifier / "*"
    path-pattern = "/" *UTF8-char-noctl ; valid URI path pattern
    empty-pattern = *WS

    identifier = 1*(%x2D / %x41-5A / %x5F / %x61-7A)
    comment = "#" *(UTF8-char-noctl / WS / "#")
    emptyline = EOL
    EOL = *WS [comment] NL ; end-of-line may have
                           ; optional trailing comment
    NL = %x0D / %x0A / %x0D.0A
    WS = %x20 / %x09

    ; UTF8 derived from RFC3629, but excluding control characters

    UTF8-char-noctl = UTF8-1-noctl / UTF8-2 / UTF8-3 / UTF8-4
    UTF8-1-noctl = %x21 / %x22 / %x24-7F ; excluding control, space, '#'
    UTF8-2 = %xC2-DF UTF8-tail
    UTF8-3 = %xE0 %xA0-BF UTF8-tail / %xE1-EC 2UTF8-tail /
             %xED %x80-9F UTF8-tail / %xEE-EF 2UTF8-tail
    UTF8-4 = %xF0 %x90-BF 2UTF8-tail / %xF1-F3 3UTF8-tail /
             %xF4 %x80-8F 2UTF8-tail

    UTF8-tail = %x80-BF

2.2.1. The User-Agent Line

Crawlers set their own name, which is called a product token, to find relevant groups. The product token MUST contain only upper and lowercase letters ("a-z" and "A-Z"), underscores ("_"), and hyphens ("-"). The product token SHOULD be a substring of the identification string that the crawler sends to the service (for example, in the case of HTTP, the product token SHOULD be a substring in the user-agent header). The identification string SHOULD describe the purpose of the crawler. Here's an example of a user-agent HTTP request header with a link pointing to a page describing the purpose of the ExampleBot crawler, which appears as a substring in the user-agent HTTP header and as a product token in the robots.txt user-agent line:

Table 1: Example of a user-agent HTTP header and robots.txt user-agent line for the ExampleBot product token. Note that the product token (ExampleBot) is a substring of the user-agent HTTP header
user-agent HTTP header robots.txt user-agent line
user-agent: Mozilla/5.0 (compatible; ExampleBot/0.1; user-agent: ExampleBot

Crawlers MUST use case-insensitive matching to find the group that matches the product token, and then obey the rules of the group. If there is more than one group matching the user-agent, the matching groups' rules MUST be combined into one group and parsed according to Section 2.2.2.

Table 2: Example of how to merge two robots.txt groups that match the same product token
Two groups that match the same product token exactly Merged group
user-agent: ExampleBot
disallow: /foo
disallow: /bar

user-agent: ExampleBot
disallow: /baz
user-agent: ExampleBot
disallow: /foo
disallow: /bar
disallow: /baz

If no matching group exists, crawlers MUST obey the group with a user-agent line with the "*" value, if present.

Table 3: Example of no matching groups other than the '*' for the ExampleBot product token
Two groups that don't explicitly match ExampleBot Applicable group for ExampleBot
user-agent: *
disallow: /foo
disallow: /bar

user-agent: BazBot
disallow: /baz
user-agent: *
disallow: /foo
disallow: /bar

If no group matches the product token and there is no group with a user-agent line with the "*" value, or no groups are present at all, no rules apply.

2.2.2. The Allow and Disallow Lines

These lines indicate whether accessing a URI that matches the corresponding path is allowed or disallowed.

To evaluate if access to a URI is allowed, a crawler MUST match the paths in allow and disallow rules against the URI. The matching SHOULD be case sensitive. The matching MUST start with the first octet of the path. The most specific match found MUST be used. The most specific match is the match that has the most octets. Duplicate rules in a group MAY be deduplicated. If an allow and disallow rule are equivalent, then the allow rule SHOULD be used. If no match is found amongst the rules in a group for a matching user-agent, or there are no rules in the group, the URI is allowed. The /robots.txt URI is implicitly allowed.

Octets in the URI and robots.txt paths outside the range of the US-ASCII coded character set, and those in the reserved range defined by [RFC3986], MUST be percent-encoded as defined by [RFC3986] prior to comparison.

If a percent-encoded US-ASCII octet is encountered in the URI, it MUST be unencoded prior to comparison, unless it is a reserved character in the URI as defined by [RFC3986] or the character is outside the unreserved character range. The match evaluates positively if and only if the end of the path from the rule is reached before a difference in octets is encountered.

For example:

Table 4: Examples of matching percent-encoded URI components
Path Encoded Path Path to Match
/foo/bar?baz=quz /foo/bar?baz=quz /foo/bar?baz=quz
/foo/bar/U+E38384 /foo/bar/%E3%83%84 /foo/bar/%E3%83%84
/foo/bar/%E3%83%84 /foo/bar/%E3%83%84 /foo/bar/%E3%83%84
/foo/bar/%62%61%7A /foo/bar/%62%61%7A /foo/bar/baz

The crawler SHOULD ignore "disallow" and "allow" rules that are not in any group (for example, any rule that precedes the first user-agent line).

Implementers MAY bridge encoding mismatches if they detect that the robots.txt file is not UTF8 encoded.

2.2.3. Special Characters

Crawlers MUST allow the following special characters:

Table 5: List of special characters in robots.txt files
Character Description Example
"#" Designates an end of line comment. "allow: / # comment in line"

"# comment on its own line"
"$" Designates the end of the match pattern. "allow: /this/path/exactly$"
"*" Designates 0 or more instances of any character. "allow: /this/*/exactly"

If crawlers match special characters verbatim in the URI, crawlers SHOULD use "%" encoding. For example:

Table 6: Example of percent-encoding
Percent-encoded Pattern URI

2.2.4. Other Records

Crawlers MAY interpret other records that are not part of the robots.txt protocol. For example, 'sitemap' [SITEMAPS]. Crawlers MAY be lenient when interpreting other records. For example, crawlers may accept common typos of the record.

Parsing of other records MUST NOT interfere with the parsing of explicitly defined records in Section 2.

2.3. Access Method

The rules MUST be accessible in a file named "/robots.txt" (all lower case) in the top level path of the service. The file MUST be UTF-8 encoded (as defined in [RFC3629]) and Internet Media Type "text/plain" (as defined in [RFC2046]).

As per [RFC3986], the URI of the robots.txt is:


For example, in the context of HTTP or FTP, the URI is:

2.3.1. Access Results Successful Access

If the crawler successfully downloads the robots.txt, the crawler MUST follow the parseable rules. Redirects

It's possible that a server responds to a robots.txt fetch request with a redirect, such as HTTP 301 and HTTP 302 in case of HTTP. The crawlers SHOULD follow at least five consecutive redirects, even across authorities (for example, hosts in case of HTTP), as defined in [RFC1945].

If a robots.txt file is reached within five consecutive redirects, the robots.txt file MUST be fetched, parsed, and its rules followed in the context of the initial authority.

If there are more than five consecutive redirects, crawlers MAY assume that the robots.txt is unavailable. Unavailable Status

Unavailable means the crawler tries to fetch the robots.txt, and the server responds with unavailable status codes. For example, in the context of HTTP, unavailable status codes are in the 400-499 range.

If a server status code indicates that the robots.txt file is unavailable to the crawler, then the crawler MAY access any resources on the server. Unreachable Status

If the robots.txt is unreachable due to server or network errors, this means the robots.txt is undefined and the crawler MUST assume complete disallow. For example, in the context of HTTP, an unreachable robots.txt has a response code in the 500-599 range.

If the robots.txt is undefined for a reasonably long period of time (for example, 30 days), crawlers MAY assume the robots.txt is unavailable as defined in Section or continue to use a cached copy. Parsing Errors

Crawlers MUST try to parse each line of the robots.txt file. Crawlers MUST use the parseable rules.

2.4. Caching

Crawlers MAY cache the fetched robots.txt file's contents. Crawlers MAY use standard cache control as defined in [RFC9111]. Crawlers SHOULD NOT use the cached version for more than 24 hours, unless the robots.txt is unreachable.

2.5. Limits

Crawlers SHOULD impose a parsing limit to protect their systems; see Section 3. The parsing limit MUST be at least 500 kibibytes [KiB].

3. Security Considerations

The Robots Exclusion Protocol is not a substitute for more valid content security measures. Listing paths in the robots.txt file exposes them publicly and thus makes the paths discoverable. To control access to the URI paths in a robots.txt file, users of the protocol should employ a valid security measure relevant to the application layer on which the robots.txt file is served. For example, in case of HTTP, HTTP Authentication defined in [RFC9110].

To protect against attacks against their system, implementors of robots.txt parsing and matching logic should take the following considerations into account:

  • Memory management: Section 2.5 defines the lower limit of bytes that must be processed, which inherently also protects the parser from out of memory scenarios.
  • Invalid characters: Section 2.2 defines a set of characters that parsers and matchers can expect in robots.txt files. Out of bound characters should be rejected as invalid, which limits the available attack vectors that attempt to compromise the system.
  • Untrusted content: Implementors should treat the content of a robots.txt file as untrusted content, as defined by the specification of the application layer used. For example, in the context of HTTP, implementors should follow the security considerations section of [RFC9110].

4. IANA Considerations

This document has no actions for IANA.

5. Examples

5.1. Simple Example

The following example shows:

  • *: A group that's relevant to all user-agents that don't have an explicitly defined matching group. It allows access to the URLs with the /publications/ path prefix, and restricts access to the URLs with the /example/ path prefix and to all URLs with .gif suffix. The * character designates any character, including the otherwise required forward slash; see Section 2.2.
  • foobot: A regular case. A single user-agent followed by rules. The crawler only has access to two URL path prefixes on the site, /example/page.html and /example/allowed.gif. The rules of the group are missing the optional whitespace character, which is acceptable as defined in Section 2.2.
  • barbot and bazbot: A group that's relevant for more than one user-agent. The crawlers are not allowed to access the URLs with the /example/page.html path prefix, but otherwise have unrestricted access to the rest of the URLs on the site.
  • quxbot: An empty group at end of the file. The crawler has unrestricted access to the URLs on the site.
            User-agent: *
            Disallow: *.gif$
            Disallow: /example/
            Allow: /publications/

            User-Agent: foobot

            User-Agent: barbot
            User-Agent: bazbot
            Disallow: /example/page.html

            User-Agent: quxbot


5.2. Longest Match

The following example shows that in the case of two rules, the longest one is used for matching. In the following case, /example/page/disallowed.gif MUST be used for the URI

            User-Agent: foobot
            Allow: /example/page/
            Disallow: /example/page/disallowed.gif

6. References

6.1. Normative References

Berners-Lee, T., Fielding, R., and H. Frystyk, "Hypertext Transfer Protocol -- HTTP/1.0", RFC 1945, DOI 10.17487/RFC1945, , <>.
Freed, N. and N. Borenstein, "Multipurpose Internet Mail Extensions (MIME) Part Two: Media Types", RFC 2046, DOI 10.17487/RFC2046, , <>.
Bradner, S., "Key words for use in RFCs to Indicate Requirement Levels", BCP 14, RFC 2119, DOI 10.17487/RFC2119, , <>.
Yergeau, F., "UTF-8, a transformation format of ISO 10646", STD 63, RFC 3629, DOI 10.17487/RFC3629, , <>.
Berners-Lee, T., Fielding, R., and L. Masinter, "Uniform Resource Identifier (URI): Generic Syntax", STD 66, RFC 3986, DOI 10.17487/RFC3986, , <>.
Crocker, D., Ed. and P. Overell, "Augmented BNF for Syntax Specifications: ABNF", STD 68, RFC 5234, DOI 10.17487/RFC5234, , <>.
Leiba, B., "Ambiguity of Uppercase vs Lowercase in RFC 2119 Key Words", BCP 14, RFC 8174, DOI 10.17487/RFC8174, , <>.
Nottingham, M., "Web Linking", RFC 8288, DOI 10.17487/RFC8288, , <>.
Fielding, R., Ed., Nottingham, M., Ed., and J. Reschke, Ed., "HTTP Semantics", STD 97, RFC 9110, DOI 10.17487/RFC9110, , <>.
Fielding, R., Ed., Nottingham, M., Ed., and J. Reschke, Ed., "HTTP Caching", STD 98, RFC 9111, DOI 10.17487/RFC9111, , <>.

6.2. Informative References

"Kibibyte - Simple English Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia", n.d., <>.
"Robots Exclusion Protocol", n.d., <>.
"Sitemaps Protocol", n.d., <>.

Authors' Addresses

Martijn Koster (editor)
Stalworthy Computing, Ltd.
Suton Lane
Wymondham, Norfolk
NR18 9JG
United Kingdom
Gary Illyes (editor)
Google LLC.
Brandschenkestrasse 110
CH-8002 Zurich
Henner Zeller (editor)
Google LLC.
1600 Amphitheatre Pkwy
Mountain View, CA, 94043
United States of America
Lizzi Sassman (editor)
Google LLC.
Brandschenkestrasse 110
CH-8002 Zurich