Like the Incredible Hulk, dividends are a force to be reckoned with.

If you ask me, there is no better way to quickly determine the overall attractiveness of a stock than by checking out its dividend. Dividends can give you a sense of whether a company is really making money, whether its stock is reasonably valued, and how management views shareholders. All in all, it's a pretty mighty number.

And while most investors are very familiar with dividend royalty like ConocoPhillips (NYSE: COP) and McDonald's (NYSE: MCD), there are plenty of good dividend-paying companies that are small enough to fly under Wall Street's radar. And many of these undercover dividend payers offer higher dividend payouts, better growth, or both.

To uncover some of these small dividend dynamos, I turned to the Motley Fool CAPS community, looking specifically for companies with a market cap below $5 billion and a dividend yield above 2.5%.

Company

Market Cap

Dividend Yield

CAPS Rating
(out of 5)

Nordic American Tanker Shipping (NYSE: NAT)

$1.4 billion

3.4%

****

Olin

$1.4 billion

4.6%

*****

AllianceBernstein (NYSE: AB)

$2.8 billion

9.2%

*****

Rayonier

$3.4 billion

4.8%

***

HRPT Properties Trust (NYSE: HRP)

$1.6 billion

6.8%

****

Source: CAPS and Yahoo! Finance.

While the stocks above are all small and dividend-paying, it's apparent that the CAPS community doesn't think they're all worth your investment dollars. They could all be worth researching further, though, and to get you started, let's take a closer look at AllianceBernstein.

The business
AllianceBernstein is an asset manager providing institutional investment services, retail services (including mutual funds), private client services, and investment research. As is usually the case with asset management, the business model is pretty simple -- offer solid investment products, get a pile of assets under management (AUM), and collect fees on those assets.

But like much of the investment management industry now -- whether we're talking about Citigroup's (NYSE: C) hedge funds or pretty much all of Legg Mason's (NYSE: LM) business -- AllianceBernstein's story is one of recovery and rebuilding. The company has watched as poor fund performance and withdrawals took their toll over the past couple of years.

With $480 billion in assets under management, including $290 billion in institutional money, AllianceBernstein is still a formidable manager. Fourth-quarter results were certainly a promising step in the right direction, showing revenue up 35% year over year and net income more than doubling. However, while year-over-year AUM was up 7%, that was a decline from the prior quarter, suggesting that there's still more healing to be done.

The dividend
As a limited partnership, AllianceBernstein is required to distribute all of its available cash flow. For investors there are both pros and cons that come with this structure. On the pro side, investors are treated to all of the spoils of AllianceBernstein's success, and that can often mean a big annualized yield -- like the current 9.2% payout.

On the flip side, the distribution policy doesn't give investors a payout that they can count on quarter-in and quarter-out. For instance, the company paid out $3.11 in 2000, $1.45 in 2003, $4.33 in 2007, and $1.77 in 2009. If you're building a retirement plan around dividend stocks, AllianceBernstein's peaks and valleys may mean that you're feasting on filet mignon one year and slurping Ramen noodles the next.

So could we call the current dividend "safe?" Probably not. The company hasn't exactly shown a high degree of predictability and if results start to suffer again, the payout will move in lockstep.

What we can say, though, is that the business seems to be moving in the right direction again and shareholders will be direct beneficiaries if business results do continue to improve.

CAPS members sound off
Currently, 468 members of the CAPS community have rated AllianceBernstein's stock an outperformer, while just 20 think it will lag the rest of the market. CAPS All-Star mrindependent joined the bullish chorus last summer, citing the stock's bargain-level valuation:

Alliance Bernstein Holdings typically sells for 2 times book value. Currently available for 1.2 times book.... The nature of the business makes capital reinvestment unnecessary.

So far mrindependent has bagged 25 points for that outperform call. And the opportunity in AllianceBernstein may not have disappeared quite yet. Today, the stock trades at a price-to-book value of around 1.5 and the dividend is a fat 9.2%.

Your turn
Think these dividend payers have what it takes to be top-notch investments? Head over to CAPS and share your thoughts on the prospects for AllianceBernstein or any of the other companies listed above.

AllianceBernstein may be a good investment opportunity, but my fellow Fool Tim Hanson believes he's found the biggest investment opportunity of the year.

The Fool owns shares of Legg Mason. Try any of our Foolish newsletters today, free for 30 days

Fool contributor Matt Koppenheffer owns shares of McDonald's, but does not own shares of any of the other companies mentioned. You can check out what Matt is keeping an eye on by visiting his CAPS portfolio, or you can follow Matt on Twitter @KoppTheFool. The Fool's disclosure policy has never once been caught with its pants down. Of course, it doesn't actually wear pants ...