Whitehouse.gov Robots.txt

Update 10/28/03: White House Responds and there is a good resolution to this issue.

Most, if not all, of the problematic "disallow" statements noted below have been corrected.

Why is whitehouse.gov (the official White House website) disallowing "iraq" directories from search engine crawling?

[The discussion below is for those with a small bit of technical knowledge (i.e. those who already know what a robots.txt file is and what it does). If you don't know about robots.txt, go here for a less technical explanation.]

As of Oct 24, 2003 the robots.txt file at whitehouse.gov (you can access the current version here or an archived version, here) is 1631 lines long. There are two blank lines between sections, one line (at the very top) that identifies the file, and 8 lines at the very bottom that are instructions to a user-agent called "whsearch" which appears to be the internal whitehouse.gov crawler. The bulk of the file is the section directed to all external search engine robots /crawlers / spiders, which is 1,620 lines long and has 1,619"Disallow" statements.

There are 862 instances of the term "text" in the file, which is easily explained because whitehouse.gov generally uses directory paths that end in "text" for printable pages -- the pages that are duplicates of the normal display pages except that they are formatted for printing. It's easy to see why the term "text" appears so often in this file, since disallowing these directories helps lessen the "clutter" in search by excluding the essentially duplicate pages.

There are 783 instance of the term "iraq" in this file, almost all of them appended to paths that already exist in the file. These appear to have been added haphazardly, since the term appears in many path names for which no such terminal "iraq" directory exists, such as:

Disallow: /holiday/2002/barney/iraq
Disallow: /kids/eggroll/iraq

However, this robots.txt file does exclude external search engine robots from some 75 directories that actually exist on whitehouse.gov. Here are 75 of the currently excluded directories.

Some things to note:

1) The White House internal search (scroll to the bottom of the robots.txt file to see that section) is far less exclusionary than that for external search robots.

For instance, a search of whitehouse.gov with Google for the phrase "unique urgency" returns no hits.:


But an internal search of Whitehouse.gov for the phrase does find hits from directories that Google is excluded from:


[This search-result URL may expire. If so, go to http://www.whitehouse.gov and enter the phrase "unique urgency" (with the quotation marks) to perform the search.]


2) While the exclusion appears to have effectively prevented spiders from any directory on whitehouse.gov that includes "iraq" in the name of the directory itself, there are files that discuss or mention iraq which are in non-excluded directories: in other words, you can find "iraq" hits on whitehouse.gov using Google, in non-excluded directories but not nearly as many as if these exclusions were not in place.

The information above is based on the robots.txt file at whitehouse.gov on Friday, October 24, 2003. That file is archived here. For a historical look at the whitehouse.gov robots.txt file, here are a few examples:

Google's cache (retrieved from Google on 10/26/03, but actual caching date unspecified) of whitehouse.gov robots.txt. I've archived the cache as it is at this writing here . This file is 1579 lines long, with 754 instances of "iraq."

The most current whitehouse.gov file archived at the Internet Archive is from April 16, 2003. This file is 780 lines long, with only 10 instances of the word "iraq."

Sometime between April 2003 and late October, 2003, hundreds of instances of the term "iraq" were added to the whitehouse.gov robots.txt file.

On a quick look, It appears that the google cached version of the robots.txt file very nearly could be created by searching for the string "text" in the April 16 file and replacing it with the string "iraq" then adding the newly changed files ("text" to "iraq") to the original file, keeping the lines with "text" in them as well. That's from a quick look so I'm not sure it would hold up, but it appears it could explain the bulk of the "iraq" appearances.

It would be a rather haphazard way of doing things, but the inclusion of odd Disallowed directories like the "barney" directory mentioned above indicate that this was done in a slapdash way. Still, it did effectively disallow many directories with "iraq" in the path, but added many non-existent directories to the robots.txt file.

From looking at the directory structure of whitehouse.gov, it appears that it probably eliminated from external search every directory with "iraq" in the directory path.

Keith Spurgeon

Email address corrected: Contact email: click here and change email address to valid email address.