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Photo: Flickr user Stopnlook.

When it comes to investing, it's hard to beat the remarkable power of dividends. According to a Morgan Stanley study, between 1930 and 2012, 42% of the S&P 500's return was a result of dividends. Data from the folks at Ned Davis Research, meanwhile, shows  that between 1972 and 2012, dividend-paying stocks in the S&P 500 averaged annual gains of about 9.5%, versus only 1.6% for non-dividend payers.

There are myriad dividend-paying stocks, though, so it's not always easy to decide which ones deserve your investment dollars. Definitely look for hefty payouts, but know that some steep dividend yields are the result of a plummeting share price and a company facing potentially lasting problems. So look beyond the yield itself and make sure the company is healthy, growing, and facing a bright future.

You may want to favor dividends that are being increased at a good clip over time, too, as that can turbocharge your results. If a stock is paying a dividend of $1 per share, and that dividend is increased by 10% annually over a decade, you'll eventually be collecting a payout of $2.59. Finally, look for a payout ratio that suggests the dividend is sustainable. Payout reflects the portion of earnings being paid out as dividends. A steep one -- typically greater than 80% or so -- suggests that the dividend may not be sustainable. A payout ratio of 82% is not necessarily damning, but a ratio of 30% to 60% is generally healthier.

Contenders
Three companies to consider are BlackRock (NYSE:BLK), Vodafone Group Plc (NASDAQ:VOD), and Qualcomm (NASDAQ:QCOM). Here are a few stats on them:

Company

Dividend Yield

5-Year Dividend Growth Rate 

Payout Ratio

BlackRock

2.2%

18.6%

39%

Vodafone

3.1%

21.5%

22%

Qualcomm

2.4%

19.1%

33%

Source: The Motley Fool CAPS.

BlackRock
You may not have heard of BlackRock, but it has a market capitalization near $60 billion and is a major money-manager, overseeing more than $4.5 trillion. Not only is BlackRock's dividend growing briskly -- with plenty of room for further growth, as evidenced by its payout ratio -- its revenue and earnings are, too. Its revenue has more than doubled over the past six years, while earnings per share have more than tripled. The fees it collects for its services may seem small, but when you take its immense volume into consideration, you can see how it reaps annual net income of about $3 billion. My colleague Todd Campbell has noted BlackRock's diversification, too, with about a third of the money it manages in bonds and two-thirds in stocks. Its net profit margin has been inching up in the past few years and was recently a whopping 30%.

Images

Photo: Ken Banks, kiwanja.net.

Vodafone
Vodafone is a major telecommunications company (recent market cap: $93 billion), based in the U.K. and also operating in Europe, Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. As of midyear, it boasted 436 million mobile customers and 9 million fixed broadband customers. Vodafone recently sold its 45% stake in Verizon Wireless to Verizon for a whopping $130 billion, and it's using that money to expand globally and to develop wider 4G coverage in Europe and 3G coverage in emerging markets. It's also buying cable companies so that it can offer more customers bundles of services. In its last half-year report, Vodafone posted revenue growth of 9%, and it has investors excited about its growth plans in India, which has hundreds of millions of potential customers.

Qualcomm
Qualcomm is one of the world's largest semiconductor companies and the leading vendor of smartphone-related chips, selling applications processors, modems, connectivity chips, and more. It's also entering the server-chip market. Qualcomm also owns thousands of patents and collects about 30% of its revenue and about two-thirds of operating profit from royalties and licensing fees -- though its licensing practices are being investigated by some authorities. Sales of 3G and 4G LTE devices are growing globally, and Qualcomm is collecting a percentage of their selling prices. (China is one of Qualcomm's largest markets and accounted for nearly half of all the company's revenue in fiscal year 2013.) The company is also broadening its scope, looking to sell chips to carmakers, for example, and aiming to support connectivity for wearable technology, among other things. Qualcomm's balance sheet is solid, with more than $18 billion in cash and marketable securities on the books.

These are just a few of many terrific dividend-paying companies out there. Spend a little time hunting on your own, and you'll find lots of compelling contenders.

Longtime Fool specialist Selena Maranjian, whom you can follow on Twitter, owns shares of Qualcomm and Verizon Communications. The Motley Fool recommends BlackRock and Vodafone and owns shares of Qualcomm. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.