If you're looking for dividend-paying stocks, you need to know the Dividend Achievers.

Created by Mergent and now overseen by Indxis, several indexes track companies that qualify as "Dividend Achievers" -- an elite group of roughly 300 businesses that have increased their dividends annually over the past decade, and that meet certain liquidity requirements.

These achievers are worth following because dividends can really pack a punch for your portfolio. According to an Ibbotson study, reinvested dividends made up 40% of total stock returns from 1926 to 2006.  

Dividend aficionados like me now have an easy way to buy into the Dividend Achievers index, thanks to exchange-traded funds (ETFs) such as the PowerShares Dividend Achievers ETF (PFM), which recently sported a 2.8% dividend yield.

But that's not exciting enough for me. To earn a spot on the list, a company must simply increase its dividend 10 years in a row. That's a decent enough accomplishment, since troubled companies often reduce or eliminate their dividends instead, but it's not all that impressive. After all, a company could have grudgingly increased its payout by a penny or two per year, and still made the list.

Stronger measures
The folks at Indxis headquarters may have been thinking along the same lines, because they now offer several subsets of the big list.

The Dividend Achievers 50 Index, for example, tracks the 50 highest-yielding stocks on the list -- a more tantalizing option for me, given its higher dividend rates. Healthy companies with high dividend yields tend to have drawn the market's scorn for some reason -- if the dividend stays constant, and the stock price falls, the dividend yield rises.

The High Growth Rate Dividend Achievers index presents another intriguing option. This index filters the list to highlight the 100 stocks with the fastest-growing dividends, giving you an easy way to invest in some of the market's most active and aggressive dividend payers.

Some examples of stocks within the High Growth Rate index include:

Company

% of Index

Recent Dividend Yield

Wal-Mart (NYSE:WMT)

4.9%

2.3%

IBM (NYSE:IBM)

4.7%

2.2%

PepsiCo (NYSE:PEP)

4.4%

3.2%

McDonald's (NYSE:MCD)

4.2%

3.5%

Johnson & Johnson (NYSE:JNJ)

4.1%

3.5%

Medtronic (NYSE:MDT)

4.1%

2.4%

United Technologies (NYSE:UTX)

3.9%

3.1%

Source: Indxis, Yahoo! Finance.

Caveat emptor, investors
Before you go looking for ETFs that track these indexes, though, be aware that PowerShares recently shuttered the ETF that tracked the High Growth Rate Dividend Achievers. Apparently, lack of investor interest led to asset levels that couldn't sustain the fund's operations. Nevertheless, you can buy individual shares of the companies within the index, or stick with ETFs based on the other two indexes.

In addition, even with these screens, you'll find stocks that may not meet your own requirements. For instance, despite its various attractions, Wal-Mart is certainly not universally loved. Among our Motley Fool CAPS community, more than 100 All-Star members are bearish on the company, pointing to a potential loss of revenue when the economy recovers and consumers return to more expensive shopping options. Still, as long as you buy an ETF or build your own diversified portfolio, one bad performer won't torpedo your returns. (That's the beauty of diversification.)

Indexes are a good place to start, but a little research can help you strengthen your investments' focus. To maximize your dividend power, seek attractive companies with sizable, regularly growing dividends.

For more on income investing, read about:

If you'd like finding great dividend stocks, take advantage of a free trial of our Motley Fool Income Investor newsletter. There's no obligation to subscribe, and you'll be able to access all past issues and read about every recommendation in detail.

Dan Caplinger updated this article, originally written by Selena Maranjian and published Oct. 24, 2007. Dan doesn't own shares of the companies mentioned. Wal-Mart is a Motley Fool Inside Value recommendation. Johnson & Johnson and PepsiCo are Motley Fool Income Investor selections. Try any of our Foolish newsletters today, free for 30 days. The Fool has a disclosure policy.