Now if you ask me, I might say that right now smart investors are looking at dividend stocks. But that implies that other investors aren't smart, and I don't want to do that.

What I will say, though, is that if you're not already sniffing around dividend-paying stocks, then it's high time you started. The "why" is pretty simple:

  • You can score a better yield from many dividend-paying stocks than you can from Treasury bonds.
  • Dividend stocks have shown an ability to perform even when the rest of the market is ugly.
  • When a strong company kicks out dividend checks, you get paid no matter what the market is doing.

I could keep going, but that's a good start.

Yay dividends! Now what?
Now we have to track down dividend stocks worth owning. Looking at individual stocks one at a time is certainly a possibility, but it can also be very time-consuming considering the sheer number of dividend-paying stocks out there. So what I've done is break up the dividend-paying stocks in the S&P 500 by industry so we can try to narrow down the industries where we may have the best luck.

Right off the top, if you're looking for sheer number of companies to choose from, you'll want to turn to the capital goods, energy, and utilities industries. Nearly one-fifth of the S&P 500 is made up of dividend-paying stocks in those sectors. But that's a pretty weak way to go, so let's move on.

Yield
This is probably the most popular way to look at dividend stocks. If we're looking at stocks because of their payouts, let's look at the ones with the highest payouts. That makes sense, right?

Kind of. A hefty dividend yield has made stocks like Annaly Capital Management (NYSE: NLY) quite popular among investors. I'm not one of those investors -- in fact, I really don't like the stock or the company very much at all. With Annaly, like other very-high-yielders, you give up stability and reliability in favor of big quarterly checks.

"But," some of you are no doubt saying, "I'm totally cool with that trade-off." Well if that's the case, then here are the industries that will yield (pun intended) the most for you.

Industry

Average Dividend Yield

Average Payout Ratio

Telecommunication Services

7.3%

232%

Utilities

4.5%

66%

Real Estate

3.5%

166%

Pharmaceuticals, Biotechnology, and Life Sciences

3.4%

37%

Food, Beverage, and Tobacco

3.1%

45%

Source: Capital IQ, a Standard & Poor's company, and author's calculations.

Growth
If you care less about what you're getting paid today and more about what your investment will be kicking out a few -- or many -- years down the road, then growth may be more of a concern. Here are the industries that may wow you with their payout hikes.

Industry

Average Three-Year Dividend Growth

Average Yield

Telecommunication Services

27%

7.3%

Software and Services

26%

1.7%

Healthcare Equipment and Services

21%

1.4%

Semiconductors and Semiconductor Equipment

20%

2.8%

Transportation

13%

1.6%

Source: Capital IQ, a Standard & Poor's company, and author's calculations.

Now before you get too excited about the fact that telecom topped both our yield and growth list, I should note that it's a small sector with only six companies, and one company -- CenturyLink (NYSE: CTL) -- significantly skewed the results.

CenturyLink has grown its dividend tremendously over the past few years, but the recent increases have brought its payout ratio to a level that will make heady growth more difficult. And the company's merger with Qwest (NYSE: Q) could also throw a monkey wrench in dividend growth plans.

Bringing it together
What I prefer, though, is to look for a balance of the various factors we've looked at here. So to finish, I highlighted only the industries that had an average dividend yield above 2.5%, a payout ratio below 80%, and average three-year dividend growth above 5%.

Industry

Average Yield

Average Three-Year Dividend Growth

Average Payout Ratio

Commercial and Professional Services

3.0%

8%

79%

Food, Beverage, and Tobacco

3.1%

7%

45%

Household and Personal Products

2.9%

10%

44%

Semiconductor and Semiconductor Services

2.8%

20%

40%

Utilities

4.5%

6%

66%

Source: Capital IQ, a Standard & Poor's company, and author's calculations.

I'm not going to go so far as to say that investors shouldn't look outside these sectors -- I think keeping a diversified portfolio is very important. But right now I think these are the best places to start when you're looking for dividend stocks.

Waste Management (NYSE: WM) is in the commercial and professional services group. As a national waste collector and recycler, Waste Management has a business that investors can count on and its current 3.7% yield is certainly eye-catching. Fan favorite Altria (NYSE: MO) is among the food, beverage, and tobacco names. Not everyone is comfortable investing in tobacco companies, but for those who are, the power of the Marlboro brand means Altria's 6.4% yield is rock solid.

Household and personal products contains brand-powered mainstays like dividend aristocrat Clorox -- a stock that I think has a pretty attractive valuation. You can find a whole mess of dependable payers among the utilities, but Consolidated Edison (NYSE: ED) may be a particular standout because it's another dividend aristocrat and pays out 5%.

And in case you're wondering, I skipped over semiconductors on purpose so we can finish with one of my very favorite dividend stocks, Intel (Nasdaq: INTC). I'm admittedly still scratching my head over its purchase of McAfee, but the company pays an attractive 3.5% and -- assuming large, strange acquisitions don't become the norm -- has plenty of cash rolling in to allow future dividend hikes.

I am hot on dividend stocks, but I've got a wary eye on these stocks.

Intel and Waste Management are Motley Fool Inside Value selections. Clorox and Waste Management are Motley Fool Income Investor recommendations. Motley Fool Options has recommended buying calls on Intel. The Fool owns shares of Altria Group, Annaly Capital Management, and Intel. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days.

True to its name, The Motley Fool is made up of a motley assortment of writers and analysts, each with a unique perspective; sometimes we agree, sometimes we disagree, but we all believe in the power of learning from each other through our Foolish community.

Fool contributor Matt Koppenheffer owns shares of Intel, 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 Motley Fool CAPS portfolio, or you can follow Matt on Twitter @KoppTheFool or on his RSS feed. The Fool’s disclosure policy assures you no Wookies were harmed in the making of this article.