Editor's Note: This article was updated on Feb. 7, 2017, and originally published on Sept. 3, 2016. 

Gold has been used as a means of exchange for thousands of years. The ancients were captivated by its color, entire civilizations have used it as the basis for their currencies, and even today, it is seen as an ideal asset whenever world events cause a "flight to safety."

In more recent times, many investors have taken the benefits of owning gold a step further, by buying gold mining stocks. By investing in a gold miner, they not only own gold indirectly, but also own a stake in a possibly value-creating enterprise as well. Which leads us to an important question: Which is the best gold stock to own?

A mining hammer lying on top of a pile of gold nuggets.

Image source: Getty Images.

Well, for investors looking to get in on the precious metals game, there are plenty of gold mining stocks to pick from:

Company SymbolCurrent YieldMining Locations
Agnico-Eagle Mines Ltd.  NYSE: AEM 0.79% North America, Europe
AngloGold Ashanti Limited  NYSE: AU N/A Africa
Barrick Gold Corp.  NYSE: ABX 0.41% Americas, Africa, Australia
Eldorado Gold Corporation  NYSE: EGO N/A Europe, Asia, South America
Franco-Nevada Corp.  NYSE: FNV 1.3% North America, Africa, Australia
Goldcorp Inc.   NYSE: GG 0.48% Canada, Latin America
Kinross Gold Corp.  NYSE: KGC N/A North America, Russia, West Africa, South America
Newmont Mining Corp.  NYSE: NEM 0.54% Americas, Asia, Africa
Royal Gold, Inc.  NASDAQ: RGLD 1.35% Global (streaming)
Silver Wheaton  NYSE: SLW 1.06% Global (streaming)
ASA Gold and Precious Metals Ltd.  NYSE: ASA 0.30% N/A
Yamana Gold Inc.  NYSE: AUY 0.56% Americas

The end product for all of these companies is, obviously, the same. So, when choosing which to buy, investors need to focus on each miner's unique business model and financial strengths. Here are the three best gold stocks for investors to consider.

A gold stock without any gold mines

Royal Gold (NASDAQ:RGLD): The first pick on our list has a non-traditional business model. Instead of actually owning and operating gold mines, Royal Gold acts as a financier for mining projects in exchange for royalties and/or metal streams on the production of the properties in question. Royal Gold's specialty is in financing development-stage mines, but, thanks to its past successes, also owns interests in currently producing operations. 

As of late last year, the company owned streaming interests (essentially, rights to buy gold and silver ore at below-market rates from a mining company in exchange for an up-front fee) on five producing properties and two development-stage mines. Additionally, it owns royalty interests on 34 producing properties, 22 development-stage properties, and 135 exploration-stage properties. This broad array of interests should keep the cash flow coming for decades. Royal also has a pristine balance sheet, with over $3 billion in assets supporting just $780 million in liabilities as of its latest earnings release. 

All in all, and especially after mixing in a 1.35% dividend yield, Royal Gold offers investors a great way to get in on the gold stock game without the risks associated with actually managing often-dangerous mining operations. 

An old-fashioned gold miner

Goldcorp (NYSE:GG) produces not only gold, but also silver and other base metals as well. Through its ownership of both owned and joint-venture mining properties throughout Canada and Latin America, it boasts proved/probable reserves of 40.7 million ounces of gold and 704.6 million ounces of silver, as well as smaller quantities of numerous other metals. 

Recently, unique circumstances (including focusing on planned lower-grade zones at most of its mines, and an accident at its Merlin mine located in Guatemala) led to a drop of production. That said, recently announced cost-saving initiatives that should lead to $250 million in annual savings by fiscal 2018, as well as a likely ramping up of production in the quarters ahead, will likely make those recent difficulties a memory. 

Goldcorp has also proven itself to be an innovator in its industry. It continues to make major investments in automating as much of its operations as it can, thus reducing labor costs. It is also beginning to accrue the benefits from upgrading its fleet of mining trucks. 

All in all, Goldcorp is a cost-conscious, diversified gold miner with a healthy balance sheet and a debt-to-assets ratio of just 39.5%. It also may be about to sell assets in order to raise capital -- having just engaged several investment banks to explore the sale of some of its Mexican assets.

In the gold stock game, this is about as good as it gets. 

Keeping it simple

OK, so we might be cheating with this last pick. But hear us out. All gold mining stocks, no matter how well run, are inevitably going to be correlated to one another. This is because their fortunes depend, in large part, on one thing: the price of gold. Given this simple fact, why not save yourself the headaches and simply buy shares in the SPDR Gold Trust (NYSEMKT:GLD)

The SPDR Gold Trust offers the average investor all the benefits of owning physical gold, minus minimal expenses (estimated to be 0.40% of assets per annum), without the hassles of hiding gold bars under your mattress. It also allows investors the chance to take advantage of increases in the price of gold, without the inherent risks of buying shares in actual gold miners. The management of any individual company may slip up and fail to find deposits of gold with shareholder capital, but that's not something an investor in GLD need worry about. 

If you're looking to allocate a portion of your portfolio to gold stocks as a way to diversify and possibly take part in further increases in the price of gold, SPDR Gold Trust is a great, hassle-free way to do it. 

Sean O'Reilly has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of Silver Wheaton. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.