When using a File Transfer Protocol (FTP) program to navigate your website’s directories, you may come across a .htaccess file. Most websites hosted on a shared server have at least one .htaccess file. Consisting of a text file with the name “.htaccess,” it’s typically found in the root directory. Whether your website uses shared, managed virtual private server (VPS), or managed WordPress hosting, though, it may support a .htaccess file. What is a .htaccess file, and how does it work?
Overview of .htaccess Files
A .htaccess file is a text file that’s used to configure the Apache server on which a website is hosted. It provides instructions to the server so that the server responds to requests differently than its default settings. Visitors will send requests to your website’s server via Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP) headers. A .htaccess file allows you to control how your website’s server responds to these requests.
All Apache servers can be configured using a .htaccess file. Apache, of course, is a leading type of server software. Research conducted by Netcraft shows that over 27 percent of all websites are hosted on an Apache server, compared to just 8 percent for Microsoft Windows. If your website is hosted on an Apache server, you can create a .htaccess for it.
How a .htaccess File Works
Apache servers are designed to automatically look for a .htaccess file in the directory for which a request is made. If a directory contains a .htaccess file, the server will respond to requests for content using its settings.
You can create multiple .htaccess files for your websites, but you must place them in separate directories. When placed in your website’s root directory, a .htaccess file will affect your entire website. When placed in a subdirectory, on the other hand, it will only affect requests for content in that directory and the directories below it.
Regardless of where it’s placed, a .htaccess file will change the configuration of your website’s server. You can use it to enable or disable, as well as modify, features in the Apache software. Your website’s server will execute the directives in the .htaccess file, thus changing how it responds to requests made by visitors.
When to Use a .htaccess File
You can set up redirects using a .htaccess file. Redirecting URLs, in fact, is one of the most common applications for a .htaccess file. If you recently changed your website’s URL structure, you’ll want to set up redirects. Redirects ensure that anyone who clicks a link to an old URL will be taken to the new URL for that page.
Redirecting URLs is easy with a .htaccess file. You can set up either a 301 or 302 redirect by adding a single line of text to this file. A 301 is a permanent redirect, whereas a 302 is a temporary redirect. In a .htaccess file, you can set up either of these redirects by entering “Redirect 301” or “Redirect 302,” followed by the path for the old URL and then the path for the new URL.
With a .htaccess file, you can create a custom 404 error page. Some visitors will inevitably encounter a 404 error when browsing your website. By default, they’ll see a generic page showing a “Page Not Found” or a similar message. A .htaccess file allows you to serve a custom 404 error page to these visitors.
After creating a custom 404 error page and uploading it to your website, you can specify it in a .htaccess file. This directive consists of “ErrorDocument 404,” followed by the path for the custom error page, such as “ErrorDocument 404 /custom-error-page.html.”
When upgrading your website to Hypertext Transfer Protocol Secure (HTTPS), you may want to use a .htaccess file. It will allow you to force an HTTPS connection upon your website’s visitors. Even if they attempt to access your website over HTTP, visitors will connect to your site over HTTPS. Forced HTTPS is achieved with a rewrite rule. The rewrite rule will tell your website’s server to use an HTTPS connection for all pages.
For HTTPS to work, you’ll need to install a Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) or Transport Layer Security (TLS) certificate on your website’s server. A .htaccess file doesn’t eliminate the need for a cryptographic certificate. It simply allows you to force an HTTPS connection if your website already supports HTTPS.
You can use a .htaccess file to block visitors from accessing specific parts of your website. Maybe you have a directory containing sensitive data, or perhaps you’re still working on a new page and don’t want visitors to view it yet. With a .htaccess file, you can password protect entire directories as well as individual pages or files.
In addition to password protecting directories and files, you can use a .htaccess file to block Internet Protocol (IP) addresses. If your website is under attack by a spammer, you can block the spammer’s IP address. When you block an IP address in a .htaccess file, your website’s server will reject all requests made from that IP address.
How to Create a .htaccess File
You can create a .htaccess file using any text editor. They don’t use a special format. Rather, .htaccess files use a plain-text format. Just open a text editor while adding the necessary text or code for your desired configuration settings. Some directives, such as redirects, only require a single line of text. Settings like forced HTTPS, however, require several lines of code.
Once you’ve created a .htaccess file, you can upload it to your website. Keep in mind that the settings of a child-level .htaccess file will override the settings of a parent-level .htaccess file. If you create multiple .htaccess files, the child-level .htaccess files will take precedent for the directories in which they are used.
Creating a .htaccess file is an easy and effective way to configure your website’s server. You can use it to set up redirects, create a custom 404 error page, force HTTPS upon visitors, password protect specific parts of your website and block IP addresses.