Researchers at Carleton University in Canada showed glimpses of a range of sites to volunteers. Their scores for each site tallied closely with scores made after a more detailed look.
A response known as 'cognitive bias' compels people to stick to their first impressions because they want to feel they are right.
The results are significant for web-based businesses, says the research team, because the user's initial impression of the design can determine whether they stay on the site.
Lead researcher Gitte Lindgaard said that headlines and text content is not influential in the first 50 milliseconds; the impression is more holistic.
"That first impression is a physiological response simply telling the person whether they feel good or bad about what they see," she told journalism.co.uk.
"However, that is likely to colour the person's opinion of what comes after when they are able also to discern the information presented."
Researchers are also studying the relationship between the amount of content on sites and the visual appeal to users.
"Publishers might find it is worth their while ensuring that they do not offend users visually. We do not know what factors determine likeability but that is subject to many further studies."
More news from journalism.co.uk:
Wikipedia vs Brittanica is a close call, research finds
Secrets of readers' eyes revealed
Study confirms text more of a lure than pictures
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